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  • Fr. Satish Joseph

That First Christmas, Christ was Not Found in a Church

The author of this story is unknown. All we know is that it is written by a young mother and that it was Christmas day. She writes: “We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly eating and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee. His eyes were wide with excitement and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin. I looked around and saw the source of his merriment. It was a man with a tattered rag of a coat; dirty, greasy and worn. His pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast and his toes poked out of would-be shoes. His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard, and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map. We were too far from him to smell, but I was sure he smelled. "Hi there, baby; hi there, big boy,” the man said to Erik. Erik was responding with glee to the man’s comments. My husband and I exchanged looks, "What do we do?" Nobody thought the old man was cute. He was obviously drunk. We ate in silence; all except for Erik and the man. We finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the check and told me to meet him in the parking lot. The old man was poised between the door and me. "Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik," I prayed. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing. Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms to the man's. Suddenly, a very old, smelly man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik, in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labor -- gently, so gently, cradled my baby's bottom and stroked his back.”

“No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time. I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He pried Erik from his chest--unwillingly, longingly, as though he were in pain. I received my baby, and the man said, "God bless you, ma'am, you've given me my Christmas gift." I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car. My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly. All I could say was, "My God, my God, forgive me.”

Here are my three practical implications:

Today is Christmas! You and I are here to celebrate the fact that God shared God’s Son with us. The thought of God’s Son who comes to us as a poor, vulnerable baby, warms our hearts. After all, who does not love a baby? This baby had a name. The angel Gabriel told Mary that his name would be Jesus! Jesus means, “God Saves.” To Joseph, the same angel had said that his name would be Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins.” This Christmas, I realize two things: first, that God came to us as a child to tell us that God simply loves. No prejudices, no judgements, no condemnation, no questions asked! God simply loves! Who am I today? What have I made of my life? No matter what the answer is - God loves humanity! God loves you and I with a childlike love! The more I realized this, I came upon a second realization - that I need God to save me not only from my sins. I need God to save me from me. Nothing comes more between God and me than me. My selfishness, my prejudices, my judgements, my reluctance to trust God like Mary and Joseph, my attempts to manipulate God’s will - this is me . Like Erik’s mother’s prayer, my prayer this Christmas is very similar: “Dear Savior, save me from me!”

Erik’s mother’s story brings us to terms with another stark reality - that often we miss the Divine in the very places that God taught us to find God. That first Christmas, God was not found in a church! God was in a manger in a stable. On that night, many people missed the signs that accompanied the greatest event in human history. “How is that possible?” we might ask. It happened then in the same way that it happens to us today. Like at that first Christmas, what if today too Christ is among the poor, powerless, and helpless undocumented immigrants whom no body wants? After all, Joseph and Mary were undocumented people, migrating for a census when Mary give birth to Jesus. What if Christ is among the refugees to whom one nation after another is closing doors? After all, Jesus and his parents were refugees for two years in Egypt because of political violence. What if Christ is among the homeless walking our streets? After all Christ has nowhere to lay his head. What if Christ is among the millions of human beings trafficked for shameless acts of inhumanity? After all, Christ was himself trafficked between the Romans and Herod and finally stripped of his garments. What if Christ is in the very people we consider “unfortunate,” “low-life,” or “trashy”? After all, Christ was himself degraded and humiliated. As I said earlier, that first Christmas, God was not found in the church. Perhaps, we must never forget that.

Eriks mother concludes her story this way: “I had just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment; a child who saw a soul, and a mother who saw a dirty clothes. I was a Christian who was blind, holding a child yet to be baptized a Christian. I felt it was God asking — “Are you willing to share your son for a moment? Because I shared mine with you for all eternity.” Today, in this Eucharist, just as at that first Christmas, God places Jesus Christ into our very hands. What will we place in God’s hands? Guess what Black Friday’s surprise big seller was? Guns! How about we gift Christ a less violent world? How about we gift Christ a life and a world that is as selfless, loving, compassionate, merciful, and tolerant as Christ was? How about we gift God a world the way a child sees it - no racism, no fascism, no harassment of women, no abuse of children, no inequality, and no people dying of hunger or violence. How about we gift Christ a world were every person is welcomed, respected, and treated with dignity. Make it happen folks! Make it happen because every time we do this in the smallest way, Christ is born in our very midst.

I wish you all a very blessed and peace-filled Christmas.

- Fr. Satish Joseph

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