On the front porch we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Then we all go in together, for hot coffee, “socks and soap,” women’s showers, and lots of conversation. Christmas eve on a Tuesday morning at Manna House begins.
A guest tells me on the way in, “That Emmanuel song is my favorite. ‘mourns in lonely exile here,’ moves me every time.”
I agree, my favorite Christmas song too. The music and words evoke my longing for God to transform this troubled world. My Christmas hope is that the way things are will give way to God’s dream for the flourishing of the whole creation, humanity included.
Yet, I find it hard to hold to Christmas hope. The way things are is broken. There is oppression, cruelty, hurt, and harm. Evil seems ascendant and relentless. The system is designed to grind people down. Politics as usual and consumer capitalism do not prioritize “the least of these.” The system engulfs and distorts all of us, and we live amidst deadly contradictions and cross-purposes.
I start folding laundry and come across a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. Immediately, I think of several guests who were put to death by this system. But while they were alive they were big Cowboys’ fans. They would have loved getting this t-shirt. Contradictions. Cross-purposes. Christmas hope?
I look across the laundry room and see the John Kilzer t-shirt I hung up last spring. It tumbled out of the dryer the Monday after he died. John was a friend to those on the streets and people of all walks of life who struggle with addiction. His clothing donations were especially appreciated by our taller guests. He often said, “There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us and only God can fill it.” More, he said God filled that hole with God’s love and there was nothing any of us could do to make God stop loving us.
John’s life and words recall St. Paul’s Christmas hope, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
This Christmas hope holds that despite the hardness of the present order, love will be ascendant, or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
So, Christmas hope celebrates the baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem, of all places, a land under the empire of that time. Jesus brings a Way that is Life and Truth, that practices a Christmas hope contrary to empires organized for death; a Christmas hope that leads into the Beloved Community, designed for fullness of life.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux identified the “little way” as a means to practice Jesus’ Way in our daily lives. The little way embodies Christmas hope as it cracks open ordinary tasks so that in them I can share in God’s revolutionary love.
When I pass through the clothing room, a woman who has showered asks if I can help get socks on her feet. She sits in a chair and I kneel in front of her. Her feet are disformed by years of bad shoes and too many miles. Socks do not go easily over her bunions and twisted toes, but eventually I succeed. I help her with her shoes next.
Hospitality invites me to faithfully practice such little acts of Christmas hope, so the light can come in, and so God’s reign comes in.
As the morning slows down, I have time to simply sit with the few guests who remain. We begin to talk about Christmas and the many disappointments each of us has experienced as Christmas came and went. Gifts not received. People who disappointed. It seems like a good time to have a Charlie Brown Christmas moment, an affirmation of Christmas hope. I read to those gathered Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. When I finish guests weigh in.
“Jesus slept outside.”
“Jesus got a rough start.”
“No room for them in the inn.”
I look around and see a guest still asleep on the couch. He has been there all morning. He will return to the streets when Manna House closes.
“He’s coming back, you know,” a guest says about Jesus, “and this time he won’t be born in a barn. This time he’s getting all of us off these streets.”