Paul Greenberg

He was nameless to the people who found him, just another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and this was where he'd landed. He would never make it to wherever he was going. He wouldn't even make it to Christmas.

He'd arrived four days before all Christendom is to rejoice in the birth of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

He'd come at a bad time. People are so busy this time of year with their own plans. And along he'd come -- like still another chore to be done with, scratched off the list.

In the words of the old gospel hymn they used to sing in black churches, We Didn't Know Who You Was.

And so, through the short, waning hours of that Dec. 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled from one station of his cross to another.

There was no room for him at the inn. They said he wasn't sick enough for the hospital to take him in. And he was too sick for the Salvation Army to take responsibility for him.

So they put him up in the county jail -- not because he'd done anything wrong, but because there was no place for him anywhere else.

That would be the last place he would know in this world. They would find him the next morning. Sometime during the night, they didn't know just when, he'd died. In the dark. Alone.

At first the newspaper heard only a rumor -- something about somebody dying in the jail and the body being shipped out before an autopsy could be performed.

Strange how what turns out to be a big story will surprise you -- how it may not be about the great and powerful, about Roman emperors and their census and taxes. Sometimes it's just about people looking for shelter on the road, a place to spend the night on the way to someplace else. Joe Telles's story, it turns out, mirrors The Story.

He left behind little but the usual, fragmentary chronicles of the poor and troubled. A brush with the law years ago, traces of a family, an illness only vaguely diagnosed. . . . There was no way to know what he thought, what he prayed, that last night. Some of us still wonder about that every Dec. 21.

It hurts to think about it, but it's a saving kind of hurt. It reminds us there is still time. Four whole days of it. Time to wake up, to free ourselves from the hubbub, to slip off our numb, dying selves, and come alive to the least of these. Four days to bring Christmas.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.