I don’t know how many times I have heard the question this year. You know the question. Maybe even you have asked it. “Are you ready for Christmas?”
This year I have been tempted to answer: “Do you really want to know?”
Today is Saturday, two days before Christmas. I am swept away by all the details that need to be finished for Christmas, especially this year as I add the responsibility of three services on Christmas Eve day and evening to an already incredibly overloaded season that begins two weeks before Thanksgiving. It is so easy to get caught up in all the things that MUST be done. Today, I will admit it, as I write this I am feeling a bit “Grinchy.”
If the truth be known, I have been feeling a bit “Grinchy” all December.
Maybe “Grinchy” is really not the word or the emotion that I am feeling. Maybe what I am feeling is the deep, darkness that I “see” when I close my eyes and know that there are so many people who are in need. And maybe it is because I am aware that need comes in so many forms and not just the need for food or clothing or shelter. Sometimes the need is to be something—understanding, compassionate, generous, welcoming, unafraid. And sometimes the need is to let go of something, such as the fears that are deep within us. We are all in need.
As I have thought—really, dwelled on these thoughts today—I find myself thinking again about the times in my life when Christmas was simple and uncomplicated and the joy and peace that it brought was powerful enough to stay with me long after the tree and presents were gone.
So I have been remembering the homes of my childhood and how Christmas was celebrated in each one, hoping that somehow my Grinchiness might disappear.
I was born in Mt. Airy, NC and while I don’t remember much about living in that house, I do remember one Christmas Eve when Santa came to visit. I remember how loud he was coming in the door and how jolly he was as he called my brothers and me by name. I remember wondering why he made such a special visit, but I also remember feeling excited and shy at seeing such a large figure dressed in red. And I remember the candy cane he gave me and the twinkle in his eyes as he told me that I should probably get to bed.
There is much more to this story of Santa’s visit to my family that Christmas, but I can’t reveal it here. So, if you are interested ask me about it sometime.
We lived in Pelham, NC when I started to school. I have already written, this year, about one Christmas at Pelham, but I also remember another Christmas in that house. It was the only time in my childhood when we had a White Christmas. That Christmas Eve, my father called me to the window to look out and there was the most beautiful, silent snow falling. It had already been snowing for quite some time because the ground was covered in white, but I thought the most beautiful sight was how the snow gathered on the trees. I remember standing at the window watching the snow until my parents dragged me off to bed.
The next morning, the world was like a snow globe! Such deep snow had fallen and everything was bright and gleaming. Since the snow changed our Christmas Day travel plans, we shared a special meal with the Pryor’s, members of our church who lived close by. Their farmhouse smelled heavenly! And in the middle of their dining room table was a German Christmas Pyramid. I had never seen one of those before and I was fascinated that the lit candles could make the tiers turn. On each tier were intricate Christmas figures. I thought it was beautiful!
I don’t remember anything I got for Christmas that year, but I remember that Christmas vividly. I especially remember the feeling of “home,” both in my own home and in our friends’ home. It was a cozy and beautiful Christmas.
Another place that we lived was Badin, NC and what made the Christmases there unique was that our living room had a Cathedral ceiling. At the highest point was 17 feet. That height meant that we really needed a huge Christmas tree. Those cedar Christmas trees were around 12 feet tall and smell so good, like the wind and the rain and scent of green. I remember coming in the front door of that house and seeing the tree standing in the room, like a beacon of color and joy.
Just before my parents retired our home was in Lewisville, NC. My brothers and I had moved away essentially. One Christmas, my brothers and I decided that our coffee drinking parents needed to move from percolated coffee to a drip Mr. Coffee maker. So we got them the coffee maker and lots of different kinds of coffee. We made so much coffee during that holiday time and probably, as a result, stayed up late during those evenings. My mother declared that Christmas the best of all because we were all grown. She didn’t have to wait on us. And she loved hearing our conversations deep into the night.
Each of these houses has a special memory for me at this time of the year. None of these Christmases were fancy, but each one is important to me because in each of these celebrations I knew that I was safe, loved, and cherished. Those were the gifts that I received every year without even knowing it. These are gifts I long to give and receive, even now.
These were the gifts of home.
As a child I thought everyone was safe and cherished. As I moved away from home I learned that this was not the case. I learned this very profoundly one Christmas when I lived in Washington, DC. I spent many Sunday evenings volunteering at the House of Ruth, a homeless shelter for women. It was my job to drive around the city and offer sandwiches and hot coffee to the homeless population that lived near the heating grates outside of the Federal buildings. I also offered to bring them to the shelter if they wanted to go.
One of the regular people that I saw was a woman named Mary Ann. Mary Ann never wanted to go to the shelter, but I would talk to her as she drank her coffee. One bitterly cold December night Mary Ann was ready to go to the shelter. We passed the White House and she said, “Do you see that house? That’s my house. It looks grand doesn’t it? It’s just a powder room.” And then she laughed.
Mary Ann had been released from the hospital and she had no where to go. For as long as she could, she survived on the streets of DC, but her life was not a long life. Surviving the elements and eating poorly took its toll and Mary Ann died young. Each Christmas I think of her and wonder.
A long time ago there was a woman and a man named Mary and Joseph who started a journey. At the beginning of the journey the knew that their lives had changed and that there was uncertainty. They were without a home as they traveled toward Bethlehem to be counted in the census. And it would be years before they would return to the place that they had called home. They may not have known it then, but they were homeless.
God had decided that all of creation was to be the dwelling place of God.
Emmanuel—God with us.
God would be incarnate through Jesus and dwell among men and women and children, in the midst of creation, in this world.
Mary was chosen to be shelter for that developing baby—the baby that would be Emmanuel. Even as she herself was without shelter, she provided a home for this child—provided for him warmth and safety and love.
Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem. And so this homeless couple went toward that city whose name means “House of Bread.” Did Mary know that time she was the home for the “Bread of the World?’
And in Bethlehem this homeless couple found no shelter for tired men and women, but only a stable, a place for tired animals. Maybe this was an important reality that the Lord of all creation was born in the midst of lowly animals. The shelter for animals became a refuge for Mary and Joseph and a newborn Emmanuel.
Our God is still looking for places of shelter. Our God is still looking for places to be Emmanuel.
In medieval times, many homes had “Christ rooms.” The idea was taken from Hebrews 13:2:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
The idea was taken further to suggest that Christ himself could be looking for shelter. So, Christ rooms were rooms furnished in homes but used only for shelter for those passing through, needing a place to stay. It was a place of hospitality and offered freely because one never knew when Christ would come in disguise. So, all were welcomed.
The Christ child, who was homeless, does come to us, still and is asking for a home within us. Are we ready to offer a home to this Christ child? Am I ready? These are the real questions for us to ask and answer in this season.
We can say exuberantly, “Yes, of course!” I say, “I want to be.”
Yet, the true answer comes not in how exuberantly we can shout or in how quietly we admit that we want to be. The true answer comes in the way we welcome those who are in need. How can we really welcome the Christ child when we forget, or, worse, refuse to acknowledge that the Christ child was born to a homeless couple in a place that not one of us would really like to spend the night, much less give birth? This was not just a “romantic” part of the story. This was the reality for a cold, homeless, poor couple who were about to become parents.
How can any of us really welcome the Christ child when we forget, or, worse, refuse to acknowledge that there are so many that Christ cares about who are without adequate shelter, who are in need of a place where there is safety and love? Are we not in danger of turning away Christ when we turn away those in need, just because we may think they are not worthy? How are we to be the judge of who is worthy and who is not? How do we not know if we are turning away Christ?
At this moment there are 65 million people in this world without a home. This week, at Crosslines, we placed several people in a hotel for the night because they have no place to live. Yesterday, while I was attending a Christmas brunch at the home of friends, I received a call from the non emergency center asking us to pay for a night for a person who had no where to go.
This season, I hate to admit that in the darkness of this world, I do not see things getting any better. Last week, I received two calls from people in other counties needing help. I felt horrible when I told them that we could not help because they did not live within the area we serve. I felt horrible to admit that we have our limits.
And yet, it was the Christ child, born in a stable, to homeless parents who came to save the world from fear and sin:
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in Thee. (Charles Wesley, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus)
And deep, down in my soul I know that there is hope. Knowing there is hope and quieting myself so that I can feel it helps me get my heart ready to welcome home the Christ child once more.
It is this Christ child, born in a stable, to homeless parents who comes to shine light in the darkness, over and over again. It is this Christ child, born in a stable, to homeless parents who brings hope to a world that seems to be hopeless about solving our problems and eager to place an emphasis on actions that are not life-giving.
The coming of the Christ child is NOT magical. The coming of the Christ child is transformational. Christ doesn’t come to us to magically make things better. The Christ child comes to us to transform us into compassionate people who understand that all people deserve food, shelter, warmth, clothing, meaningful purpose for their lives, and so much more, including a world without fear. The Christ child comes to us to transform us into understanding people, generous people, faithful people, grace-filled people, merciful people, courageous people who look for ways to make these gifts and goals happen.
The Christ child comes to us to remind us that we cannot give up hope.
So, I make this promise. I promise to continue to make myself ready to receive the Christ child in the home of my heart. And I promise to continue to work for the time when all people have a home—for Christmas and all year long, here in WV and throughout the world.
To God be the glory!