Christmas When We Least Expect It!

‘How was Christmas?’ It’s a common enough question asked by or of most of us. The answers vary with detail. For most of the world it seems that Christmas is a busy but enjoyable occasion that essentially comes and goes. Sometimes we may even wonder what it is really all about and what difference the festivities have mad in our lives or our world. As the season of Christmas continues for the 12 days after Christmas Day, I invite you to start pondering what it really is all about. Here is a true story:

A long time ago I lived in an apartment, in a very rough neighbourhood in the east end of Vancouver. Many of the people who lived in this neighbourhood got by on welfare, others earned their livings any way they could. I moved into the apartment because it was close to the office where I worked, the rent was cheap, and quite frankly I was young and foolish. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and moved into the apartment convinced that I could handle anything that came my way. The apartment building housed the most unsavoury of characters. The office where I worked was just down the street and every morning as I walked to work I would meet some of my neighbours returning home from an evening of plying their trade on the streets and in the alleys.

Each morning, I would be met at the entrance to my office by an old man named Ed. Ed had been living on the streets for years. He slept on the doorstep of the office because it was somewhat protected from the winter weather. Ed always gave me a warm welcome when I arrived. He knew that when I got inside, I would brew fresh coffee. He used to tease me that, I was a sucker for a sad face as he waited patiently for me to bring him a cup. We never talked much, though and I never found out how Ed ended up on the streets or how he spent his days.

That year I drew the short straw and had to work on Christmas Eve. Before I left my apartment, I packed a small package of goodies for Ed, but when I got to the office, Ed was no-where in sight. I asked some of the women who worked the streets if they had seen old Ed. But no one knew where he was. I went about my duties and soon forgot all about old Ed. I finished work early and went off to celebrate Christmas Eve with my friends. I had been looking forward to Christmas for weeks and was eager to celebrate. Together we shared a fine Christmas goose with all the trimmings and then we went off to a candlelight service. The service was beautiful. They really pulled out all the stops, great music, lots of activity. But somehow I was left feeling like there was something missing. The next morning I celebrated with my family. But I felt detached, like I was just going through the motions.

 The next morning as I drove back to my apartment in the city I found myself wondering if this was all there was to it. Christmas had come and gone and I didn’t feel like anything had changed at all. By the time I had parked my car, I was feeling quite depressed. Christmas was over and nothing much had changed. When I got to the entrance of my apartment, I saw Ed. I’d never seen him anywhere near my apartment before and it made me a little nervous. I wondered how he had found out where I lived. Indeed, it frightened me a little that he had taken the trouble to find out where I lived. Ed looked very agitated.

Nervously I greeted Ed and asked him why he was at my doorstep. Ed explained to me that he needed my help. I became very uneasy. The odd cup of coffee at work was one thing, but this old man showing up on my doorstep was quite another – now he wanted something. Ed asked me if I would come with him to the park. Caught off guard, I reluctantly agreed. When we arrived in the park, Ed introduced me to Karen. Karen was a very scared looking teenager, who couldn’t have been more than about fourteen years old. Ed explained that Karen had run away from home on Christmas Eve. He said that lots of kids ended up on the streets at this time of year and there were usually lots of unsavoury characters to meet them when they arrived. When Karen arrived at the city bus depot, Ed spotted her. From the moment she arrived, Ed had carefully watched over Karen, making sure that she came to no harm in the city. Karen’s two days on the streets and Ed’s gentle persuasion had convinced her that she should really go back home and try to work things out with her parents. Ed explained to me that Karen needed money for a bus ticket home. After we had called Karen’s parents and safely loaded her onto a bus, I asked Ed if he would come and share a meal with me. Ed refused the offer of a meal but agreed to share a cup of coffee with me. In the coffee shop, I took a long hard look at old Ed. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. That night in the coffee shop, I looked into the eyes of Christ. I had almost missed it. Christ had come. I was so busy looking up that I had forgotten to look around me. Christ came to me in Ed. Ed’s care and concern for Karen helped me to understand what it means for us to be Christ to one another. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus comes to us in the least likely places and often when least expect it. To put it differently, Christmas comes in the least expected places – the Christ is born, God is incarnated, in surprising places when we least expect it. Interestingly, at least in my own experience (somewhat like the person in the story), God is experienced amongst desperate, lowly, poor and powerless people and situations.

Like the time I struggled to know what to say or do in a hospital room before a young mother holding her still-born baby. We ended up baptising the little girl, giving her a name and talking about what the mother had dreamed of for her baby. There was the recent experience in a nursing home where a woman lay helpless and powerless on her bed as we talked. She moved into and out of reality, confusing situations, but smiling and talking. Far from situations of control or power or wealth, these and many other similar situations remind me that God comes in the least of places when I least expect it and the face of Jesus glows amongst the poor, weak and lowly – and sometimes amongst the rest of us. Especially when we become poor in spirit, like children… may you find the Christ birthed in the experiences of life!

When Christmas Comes…

This week I conducted 2 carols services in local nursing homes.  The first was in the dementia unit and the second a nursing home with a mix of people needing physical care and support along with those who also have dementia.

I played guitar and we sang several of the common carols and a few Christmas songs, heard the Christmas story, shared Holy Communion and said some prayers.  Whilst it can be hard work keeping things flowing and on track, it can also be a hoot! There’s the woman who never sings but sits seriously and claps in time with the songs.  Suddenly she will stand and walk up to me, lean forward and stare from 30-40 centimetres away from my face.  She will smile, nod and then sit down.  Another regularly breaks into laughter with a smile that lights the place up.  She sometimes listens to hymns and begins to cry.  Her husband comforts her.  There’s the severe looking woman who clings to the song sheet and will not let anyone touch it or help her turn the pages.  Another is full of smiles and joy but sometimes turns and shouts abuse when particular people come near.  They give her a baby doll and she nurses it, proudly displaying to everyone, her baby.  There’s the elderly man lying in his bed who reaches out to the woman next to him and touches her arm, smiles and says something nice that makes her smile.

I also think of the Sri Lankan woman in the other nursing home who can’t read the words ut knows every hymn and carol I throw at her.  The Tongan lady sings with gusto and intersperses our singing with ‘Praise the Lord!’ There is the elderly man who forgets where he is some of the time and last month he stood suddenly but his pyjama pants caught under his foot and came down.  He stood with pants around his feet.  Undaunted he lifted them up and tried hold them up and wandered off.  Of course there’s also Reg.  Reg has photos of himself with some very important people including NSW Governors and corporate leaders.  He was a leader in several organisations and has many awards.  Reg is older now – in his 90’s – and he forgets things.  Each time I go into to serve him Communion we have a similar conversation and he asks me how my break was, that they missed me – even though I was there last month.

This week, as we sang familiar carols and heard the simple story of a young woman pregnant and giving birth, with angels and shepherds, I looked around and the scene looked about right.  Amongst this rag-tag collection of people who are losing memories and declining in health and physical capacity, I recognised the presence of God.  Amongst people dependent and simple and worth little, in terms of our world where power, might and glory are idolised, I recognised the true place of God’s presence.  In the lady who is difficult or Reg who forgets, or the one who laughs or claps or holds her baby doll, God can be experienced – if I open my eyes and see!

As I read the story of Christmas from Luke’s story of Jesus, I realised that it was not amongst people of power, might, wealth, glory or even capacity, that God was made manifest.  It was amongst the simple, powerless, insignificant and outcasts – Mary, Joseph, shepherds… Set against the backdrop of the Roman Empire with all of its splendour, power and might, the story of Jesus stands in stark contrast.  Bethlehem was hardly a significant city – more a simple town.  Nazareth in Galilee was similarly despised and insignificant.  Shepherds were marginalised at best but they were witnesses to birth, to incarnation, to God with us.  Angels sang praise to this vulnerable, powerless baby born to insignificant people and proclaimed that God was indeed present and revealed in this story.  God was not aligned with Rome or the emperors and high officials.  God was necessarily even revealed in the High Priests of the Jerusalem Temple.

In the story we read this Sunday (Luke 1:39-55 – known as the Magnificat or Mary’s Song) as a lead in to the Christmas narrative, we are surprised to hear Mary sing a song of praise to God.  It is a song that inverts the world, a song sung from the underside of life.  It is a song where the poor are lifted up and the mighty and powerful brought down.  The wealthy are overlooked and the poor are chosen.  The hungry are fed and the full have enough.  The world of the ‘Mary’s’ is turned upside down and she finds herself experiencing something that she never dreamed of – equality, justice and peace!

It is a powerful song but one that is treasonous and blasphemous before the power, might and divinity of Caesar.  It called into question everything about the Roman Empire and declared that God’s Realm is among ordinary people and one is required to give up all signs of pretentious life in order to receive it, experience it be part of it.  Much of what is contained in Mary’s Song (and indeed Jesus’ whole life and ministry) would be quite unacceptable even in modern day Australia.  When translated into our culture these stories and their implications would be decried as decidedly ‘un-Australian’.  They point to the greed that drives our society and economic prosperity.  These stories lift up the indigenous people who have lived under the shadow of abuse for so long and continue to struggle.  We would be confronted over our racist tendencies and lack of compassion towards refugee and homeless people.  The struggles of people living with mental illness or physical or intellectual disability would be highlighted and these people would be lifted up as the ones in whom God is revealed.  The poor, the homeless and those we simply despise or ignore are the very ones in whom God was and is revealed! How bizarre! How positively ridiculous! How blasphemous! There are, of course, those who would deny all of this and say it has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus.  Sadly this is what the church has done for too long and God continues to live on the margins of life with ‘no room in the inn.’ Until we look into the eyes of the lowly and open our hearts to those who are truly powerless and vulnerable we will not see God.

No matter how many Christmas lights we put up.  No matter how many cards we send.  No matter how many gifts we give or salutations and greetings we offer, Christmas lies elsewhere.  The cute and lovely traditions are fun but distract us from the very serious business of Christmas.  This is the business of God, the way of Jesus.  It is to seek justice and raise up the downtrodden, the lowly the helpless and vulnerable.  It is to give up pretentions of wealth and glory and to rejoice in simplicity and community.  It is to laugh with the people in the nursing home, to sing the same song several times in the dementia unit because they have forgotten we already sang it.  It is to have the same conversation with Reg each month and smile at the same funny comments.  It is to sit in the soup kitchen or the park with the homeless and eat with them, simple food made rich because it is shared in love.  It is to hold the hand of the elderly woman who is tired of life and struggles in her hostel because she can’t do anything for herself, and listen to her story of sadness.  It is to hear the stories and tales of the mentally ill, tales that are distorted and jump from one theme to another; a rich tapestry of the unbelievable and confused but told with passion and certainty.  It is to hear the stories of Tamil refugees who are refused entry and live in great fear for their lives as they are sent home.  It is to share our wealth with those who are dispatched into our community on bridging visas and have no resources to live.  It is to stand with the woman from the Middle East who struggles to understand English and is lonely and wants so much to be able to join in. 

Christmas is a story to be lived in our lives each day and never taken for granted – the Christ is born anew each time we love, truly.  When we open ourselves to another and become somehow simpler and more vulnerable, Christ is born in our lives and revealed in this vulnerable love.  This is the other Christmas – the real one hidden from view by powers who resist the way of God.  They prefer a celebration of greed and consumption because that fuels the myth of the world that power, might and glory are the true way.  When we give into such greed or worship at the altar of power, we lose the sense of who we are and become something less than we are created to be. 

There is a yearning within that cries out for another way, one that is not as driven, obsessive, stressful or consumed with things.  Amongst the wealthy this is manifest as a desire for simplicity, for contentment and a life that is more authentic and communal.  We what this might mean and are unsure of how life might be if we give up income or possessions.  What will it mean to embrace these other people into our lives, to open ourselves to people who are different and of whom we are not sure? We also find it difficult to know how or where to begin as life goes round and round with ever increasing speed and it is hard to get off, to stop!

Within the powerless, the poor and the vulnerable, this yearning is manifest in the glimmers of hope that they sometimes see or believe they see.  The hope that they and their children will be safe from a world of violence and hatred.  The hope that they will have sufficient food for their children and a little left over for themselves.  The hope that they can connect with other human beings and be accepted for who they are despite what they seem to be.  The hope that they can have love and compassion, a sense of community and live a life that has some contentment and joy in it.

This is Christmas – when people who have too much give it up and let go so others can have enough.  It is Christmas when the acceptable, respectable and capable of society open their world to those who dwell on the fringe or appear different, even scary.  It is Christmas when we choose NOT to continue in the way of violence – physical violence, verbal violence, social and legal violence and  the violence of greed.  It is Christmas when we take up the challenge to love and be loved!

A Christmas Story…

One day a pastor was wandering down the main street of the city where he lived and he noticed a homeless man wandering towards him.  He was covered in dirt from head to toe.  There was filthy stuff caked on his skin.  But the most noticeable thing about him was his beard.  It hung down almost to his waist and there was rotted food stuck in it.  The man was holding a cup of McDonalds coffee and the lip of the cup was smudged from his dirty mouth.  As he staggered toward the pastor, he seemed to be staring into his cup of coffee.  Then suddenly, he looked up and he yelled, ‘Hey mister! Ya want some of my coffee?’

The pastor thought, ‘No way!’ but knew the right thing to do was to accept his generosity and so he replied, ‘I’ll take a sip.’  As he handed the cup back to the man he asked him, ‘You’re getting pretty generous, aren’t you, giving away your coffee? What’s gotten into you today that’s made you so generous?’

The old derelict looked straight into the pastor’s eyes and said, ‘Well… the coffee was especially delicious this morning, and I figure if God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people!’

The pastor thought to himself, ‘Oh boy, he’s really set me up now – this will cost me a few bucks!’ He asked the man, ‘I suppose that there’s something I can do for you in return, isn’t there?’

He answered, ‘Yeah! You can give me a hug!’ (The pastor was silently hoping for the few dollars!)

The man put his arms around the pastor, who suddenly realised something – he wasn’t going to let go! People passed by on the footpath.  They stared at this strange sight – a respectable pastor in respectable ministerial dress and a filthy, homeless man in an embrace! The pastor was embarrassed and didn’t know what to do.  Then little by little his embarrassment changed to awe and reverence.  A voice echoed down through history and filled his mind: ‘I was hungry; did you feed me? I was naked; did you clothe me? I was sick; did you care for me? I was a homeless man you met on the street… did you hug me? For when you do it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do it to me!’

 

I invite you to look into the eyes of the ones who are vulnerable, helpless, powerless – the ‘nobodies’ of our world and see the face of Christ, the face of God.  Sharing a meal with those who have little or nothing is a true experience of Holy Communion – when two are gathered in love, God is there and it is a sacred moment in life – a communion of two people and God!

 

This is Christmas! May you experience this life-giving, world-transforming power love in your life!

May God’s love transform your life and world as you celebrate this story and encounter the presence of the Living God in the midst of human life!