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  • Writer's pictureFr. Satish Joseph

"If Only You'll Offer Shelter"

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

At the school Mass last week, I processed into Church with a manger – the very one in the picture. The students were intrigued but perhaps could have easily guessed the reason. I placed the manger in front of the altar, and I began Mass. At homily time, I asked the students if their parents had asked them what they would want for Christmas. There was a loud cheer as they all said, “Yes!” The excitement was palpable. I too was excited for them.

My next set of questions were more strategic as I needed their answers to lead them to the manger. The conversation with the students went something like this:

Me: “Whose birthday do we celebrate at Christmas?”

Students: “Jesus!”

Me: “If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, why are you receiving gifts?” Shouldn’t Jesus be the one receiving gifts?”

Students: Puzzled silence…

Me: “Since Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, do you think we should give Jesus a gift this Christmas?”

Students: “Yes!”

Me: “What you do think Jesus would want this Christmas?”

Students: Thinking…

At this point I led the students to think about that first Christmas, when, because of a census, Jesus’ parents could not find room in Bethlehem. It was not that nobody cared, but there simply wasn’t any room. Since time had come for Jesus to be born, room or no room, Joseph and Mary had to find shelter. Desperate times called for desperate measures. They went into the only shelter they could find – a stable. And then when Jesus was born in the company of donkeys, and cows, and sheep, and chickens, and stray dogs and cats, Joseph and Mary needed a place to lay the baby down. They emptied out the animal trough, cleaned it up, lay down fresh hay, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and lay him in that manger. There he slept quietly and in peace.

I picked up the manger with which I had processed into the church and invited the students to reflect again on the one gift that Jesus needs at Christmas – shelter. Jesus needs room. He needs a manger where he can sleep in quiet and peace. “Every human heart,” I said to the students, “is a manger!” This Christmas give Jesus the Christmas gift he wants. Offer him shelter. Make room for him. May your heart be the manger.

I think the children got it.

This simple homily for students stems from a deeper reflection based on a Christmas Refrain by John of the Cross that I came across recently. The simple four-line Refrain goes:

“The Virgin, weighed

with the Word of God,

comes down the road;

if only you’ll shelter her.”

The Christmas Refrain by John of the Cross is guiding my Advent preparation for Christmas 2023. Making room, offering shelter, preparing the space – these are important phrases for me this Advent. Making room is a complex task. It simultaneously demands self-emptying to create the space. John of the Cross spent almost a thousand pages writing about the self-emptying of the human soul so that the soul could be prepared for an intimate union with God, whom he calls, “the living flame of love.” We shall save that thought for another day.

Meanwhile, Advent 2023 allows us the time and opportunity to self-empty from all that disallows us to offer shelter, to make room, and to prepare the manger for Jesus. Perhaps you ask, “What shall we do?” There is a scripture passage in which the people asked the same question of John the Baptist as he preached and prepared the way for Jesus. “The crowds asked him [John the Baptist], “What then should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages. Now the people were filled with expectation…” (Lk 3:10-14).

This Advent, let us ask ourselves the same question that the crowds asked John the Baptist – “What shall we do? We know the answer. We empty ourselves from self-love and turn our gaze toward the One who comes to save us from ourselves. We focus less on ourselves and turn our attention to the ones who needs our forgiveness, our kindness, and our love.

Children are not shy when parents ask them what they want for Christmas. But Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are not shy to let us know the gift their Son needs this Christmas.

“The Virgin, weighed

with the Word of God,

comes down the road;

if only you’ll shelter her.”

Joseph and Mary with Jesus are coming down the road. Will you offer shelter? Will you make room? Will you prepare the manger?

- Fr. Satish Joseph

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