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.”