The Coming of Jesus

J.C. came regularly to Manna House for years. Then the pandemic came, and he came no more. I thought of J.C. this morning, the first Monday of Advent, because I used to welcome J.C. as “Jesus Christ.” As I called the names on the shower list, I would call for “Jesus Christ” when it was J.C.’s time for a shower. I knew I was on solid theological ground in doing so since Jesus himself had said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). 

I don’t know what happened to J.C. He may well be dead. Or, he may have moved on to another city or another neighborhood, or even got some housing. Whatever the reason for his absence, without J.C., I no longer have an easy daily reminder that the guests at Manna House bring the very presence of Christ.

Sure, there is a guest named “Salvatore.” His very name means “Savior.” But Salvatore is far from an easy reminder of the presence of Christ. Salvatore is cantankerous, short tempered, always testing the time limits for taking a shower. He is not peaceable. He is perpetually dissatisfied with what we can offer him at Manna House. 

What I am struggling to realize is that Salvatore is a hard reminder of the presence of Christ. He brings to mind a quotation from St. Vincent de Paul, “You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, a terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”

Salvatore, as Christ present, as the Savior, is a sensitive and exacting master. As such, he saves me from self-righteousness, self-importance, a charity from above that is antithetical to hospitality. Love is a “harsh and dreadful thing” because it demands that I serve not from attraction and my own desires, but rather from the mystery of God, who is Other. Love is a discipline that requires practice and God’s grace. I have to overcome my ordinary repulsions and defensiveness and self-seeking, all of which are about me protecting and promoting me.

I think this is why Advent begins with Jesus teaching about God’s judgment that is to come. Christmas for babies is about a baby coming that is cute and non-threatening to the way I am, and the way things are. Christmas for adults is about God coming in judgment, overturning the unjust status quo, starting a revolution of the heart that requires a revolution of the way I live, including my politics, my economics, my culture. God born into obscurity, on the margins of the Roman Empire, de-centers the powers that be. King Herod tried to kill the newborn Jesus because he saw the threat. Pilate also saw the threat and so had the adult Jesus killed.

Salvatore brings God’s judgment right into my face. Salvatore saves because he undercuts my deadly sin of pride. Dorothy Day once said that serving the poor is “dangerous work,” because you begin to think you are “God’s gift to humanity.” Salvatore reminds me that I am not even a gift to him, much less to humanity. 

In his reminder of my shortcomings, Salvatore offers to me something that is truly salvific, the reminder to repent. He brings me up short and offers the honest assessment. I am far from loving as Christ loved. I am far from welcoming others as he did. In truth, I need to be freed, as the Advent song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” states, “from Satan’s tyranny.” 

Opening the Gate

My namesake, St. Peter, has long been portrayed as the one who welcomes people to the imagined “pearly gates” of heaven. So, I can’t help but think of St. Peter and those heavenly gates when I open the gate at Manna House each morning to let our guests in for hospitality. 

The whole “pearly gates” image comes from Revelation 21:21 which poetically describes the gates of the “new Jerusalem come down from heaven.” In this city, God “will wipe away every tear” and “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” 

When I open the gate, the sharing of hospitality begins. Volunteers and guests welcome each other. We pray together. Then as guests wait for their names to be called for the showers or socks and hygiene, coffee and water are served, we share stories, jokes are told, and news is passed along. 

This past week was the Feast of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez. For years he served as the doorkeeper in a Jesuit community in Spain. Of St. Alphonsus it is said, “he encountered God in each person who passed through his open door. He performed his tasks with such infinite love that the act of opening the door became a sacramental gesture” (Ellsberg, All Saints).

A sacramental gesture means a sacred sign of the loving presence of God, one that reflects the life of Jesus. In this case, Jesus initiates this sacrament when he says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and those who seek find, and to those who knock, it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

When I open the gate (or the door) at Manna House as a sacramental gesture, I seek to welcome each person as bringing the presence of God. I often fail. And I know how far what I do is from the welcome offered at the pearly gates. Death still haunts our guests (as it does all of us). Mourning and tears and pain are still near and sure to come again. A sacramental gesture points to but is not the full reality. The gate to Manna House is not the pearly gates. I am not St. Peter. And as I say to our guests from time to time, “Knock and it will be opened to you, if we are open, ask and you shall receive, if we have it to give and your name is on the list.”

But to offer this sign, this hint of heaven is not nothing either. When along with other volunteers I offer this sign, and guests accept what is offered, we all share in a reality stronger than death, stronger than each one of us in our brokenness, our tears, mourning, sickness, and pain. We share in the reality of God’s loving welcome that gives hope to our lives, causes gates and doors to be opened, and the goods of God’s creation to be shared. The truth is, when I open the gate, the guests welcome me as much as I welcome them, we enter together into God’s hospitality, and heaven draws near.