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A Christmas Message
I wrote this piece several years ago for StreetVibes, the Cincinnati homeless newspaper. I think it still applies, and so I offer it this Christmas Eve:
A Christmas Message
By the time you read this, it may no longer be the Christmas season. But Christmas is what I’m thinking about now. The decorations are up, the malls are packed, and the news tells us that a great winter storm is headed in from the west. There is plenty to do and plenty to distract me, but the story of Christmas, the real story of it, haunts me and I cannot leave it alone.
This is the season we celebrate poverty and birth. Poverty and hope, if you will. But it is a hard-bought hope. We think of Christmas as a happy time of year, but to my mind, the Christmas story is a terrible, sad story that involves exile, massacre, conflict, desperation, and the depredations of the great upon the forgotten ones of the world. We will gather in churches (or around our TVs) to tell the story of a child born homeless, to parents displaced by the whim of the powerful. Then, in the midst of a slaughter of other newborn children, the Child and those parents will have to flee for their lives and sojourn for years as refugees in a foreign land. We’ll sing Joy to the World and try to turn this story into a triumph, but it would help if the suffering of this family could lead to some happier ending. For the Child is fated to be betrayed and to die on a cross. Of course, there’s a Resurrection and that death and resurrection are supposed to save us all.
But still, once you strip away the seasonal feel-good advertising and decoration, this story is one of the most painful in all human discourse.
We celebrate poverty in this season. We honor poverty and birth and the Child. We recognize that part of the meaning of the birth of this Child is that He is born among common people, among the poor, ornery people like you and me. But somehow the notion of poverty gets lost in all the honoring and the celebration. I’m not sure what we really celebrate, but we schedule feasts and parties and presents all around and we say it is in celebration of the birth of this Child who saves us all from sin and death.
And yet the sins keep coming and the deaths keep coming. Among the homeless in the city where I live, at least twenty deaths this year, from cold, hunger, untreated disease, accident, overdose, and under-attention. There were probably more than twenty; those are just the ones we know of.
And the sins? I cannot give you a count of the sins.
An old man once told me, “If only the rich man would give up something for the poor, that would be sweet. That would be the cherry. But what we had was the plum. And that’s mighty sour.”
He was a black man with an eerie resemblance to James Earl Jones. He was talking about striking West Virginia miners in the 1920s who were put out of their homes and forced to live in tents along the river in the middle of winter. It was a sour time for them, but I’m sure the mine owners celebrated a sweet, comfortable Christmas, safe in their warm. comfortable homes.
The mine owner’s Christmas is the one we like to think of as the traditional Christmas: a big family meal, presents, warmth, and light in the darkness of the turning season.
But the Christmas of the miners ---that of people who are embattled, displaced, struggling to survive in a world that seems bent on destroying them--- that seems to me the truer Christmas.
Their world is the one the Child was born into.
And what are the sins of the poor?
They lie; they drink; they use drugs; they have sex with people they have no business having sex with; they are irresponsible; they are violent. Just ask any expert in any think-tank and they will tell you. Whatever small chances the poor have to make it in this world, they spoil by their sins; they compound their poverty that they did not invent with sins and failures of their own making.
These sins and failures are the basis of an entire profession, an army of social workers, health care workers, educators, and counselors ---I have been a foot soldier in that army myself--- whose sole function is to help the poor remediate these so-called sins and failures.
But what of the sins of the rich? They lie, they drink, they . . . . it’s the same list. We can read all about them in the pages of People Magazine. But these sins seem to affect only those sinners and their circle and seem merely pathetic and sad.
To my mind, the unmentioned sin, the greatest of these unconquered sins is that the powerful still run the world according to their whim. That sin, by which the powerful can set the powerless out of their homes or off to war, has no common name and does not appear in the pages of People Magazine. And so, we still send the poor into exile. We still witness the massacre of the Innocents. The holy families of the poor still stalk the cold hills in search of a place to give birth to their hopes.
Joy to the World? I have a hard time getting to joy when I think of the story behind the season, And hope? That’s a tough one, too. There is no easy path to either one. But I know that, if we open certain doors, joy improbably stumbles in. and hope walks with us when we walk in faith, even the grumbling faith I sometimes walk.
The Christmas lights are up; the roads to the malls are bumper to bumper; there’s a big storm coming.
I wish you joy if you can get to joy.
If joy eludes you, I wish you hope.
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