It’s not uncommon at this time of year to see attention given to those who are poor and needy, and especially to those who are homeless and out on the streets. One can speculate and pontificate on the politics and the psychology involved in such publicity, but we cannot deny that such people, regardless of their circumstances, and no matter what their own blame may be, are human beings like yourself, for whom the very Son of God became true Man and suffered death on the Cross.
One of the most poignant examples I have seen — which has stuck with me ever since, though it’s been about a decade ago, I suppose — was a picture on the front page of the South Bend Tribune. It showed a homeless man in his late 50s, sleeping outside on the night before Christmas, inside a narrow wooden box which looked disturbingly like a casket. He had nowhere else to lay his head but in that box, with a borrowed pillow and a borrowed blanket. As I recall, his name was Juan.
Images like that elicit a variety of reactions. There’s the classic, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and the more honest, “Thank God that’s not me!” It’s not unusual to feel guilty, and then to wonder what you could or should be doing. You may get angry, or feel sad, or offer excuses. Quite aside from all of that, it would surely be appropriate for you, as a Christian, to pray the Our Father and the Kyrie for your neighbor in the street, to give thanks to God for His grace and mercy toward you, and to consider how you are called and equipped to serve those around you in love.
Whatever your reactions to the suffering and sorrows of your neighbors, do not get too comfortable in your own sense of security. Do not suppose that your four walls and a roof over your head will save you from death when he rides in on his pale horse. And do not suppose that warm clothes and layers of blankets will hide you from the guilt of your sin and the punishment that you deserve. Do not suppose that your nice warm bed and your very own pillow, just right for your head, will provide you with the true peace and rest which are found only in the forgiveness of all your sins.
The fact of the matter is that, even though your circumstances in this body and life may differ from your neighbor’s, outwardly better or worse than others, your actual predicament is no different than anyone else’s. In all the ways that matter, from conception and birth, you are likewise in the dark, out in the cold, cast out of the Garden, and subject to death and the grave on account of your sin.
That is why the story of this night, and the song of the angels, and the testimony of the shepherds, and those things that dear St. Mary pondered in her heart, really are such good news. Not only for men like Juan or shepherds abiding in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, but for middle class and working class Americans, for young and old, and for the rich and poor alike.
For you and for all people there is this good news, that a Savior has been born. He is the true King, anointed by God the Father for the purpose of your salvation. It is upon His shoulders that the government rests. He has not come to rob the rich and give to the poor, nor to ignore the poor and cater to the rich, but He has voluntarily made Himself poor and lowly and despised so that you might become rich with all the riches of His Kingdom and dwell within His House forevermore.
He has come to save you from your sins, and He has done so at the cost of His own life. He has made Himself frail, weak, and mortal, so that He could bleed and die, and so that you might live.
Here, then, is the true Son of David. Here is the Man with God’s own heart. Here is the King that Israel has waited for, the King that we, His Church, have prayed for throughout the days and weeks of Advent, and really throughout our lives. He has come to save you, and He is with you now.
This really is good news. Rejoice, give thanks, and sing to the Lord your God! For He has come to be your Good Shepherd, to care for you as His own dear sheep. To feed you in green pastures, and to lead you beside quiet waters. To give you peace and rest in the place that He has prepared for you. Indeed, He has prepared His Supper and set His Table before you, even in the presence of your enemies, so that He might feed you with a magnificent Feast: To feed you with Himself.
He has not left you in the dark and clueless. As He did for the shepherds then, so does He also tell you where to look for Him, and the signs by which you will discover the Child born of St. Mary.
He is in Bethlehem, in the City of David which is called Bethlehem, that is, the House of Bread. For here now lies the true Bread from heaven, which God the Father has given, that you may eat of It and live. Here is the Bread which is the Word of God made Flesh. So this is where you find Him, in this House of Bread, which is the Church on earth. This is the true City of the true David, where He now reigns in love from the Throne of His Cross. His Altar is your Bread Basket.
And here within His Bread House, His Bethlehem, He is still wrapped in His swaddling clothes. As He was wrapped in such clothes at His birth and at His burial, so does He continue to wrap Himself in the ordinary elements of this world: In the water of Holy Baptism, and in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion, which are indeed, by His Word, His own true Body and true Blood.
You find Him wrapped up in these simple, humble elements, because that is where He has directed you with His Word. He takes bread and says, “This is My Body. Eat it.” He takes the cup of wine and says, “This is My Blood. Drink it.” So has He directed you, just as surely as He directed the shepherds: This is where you find Him who is born your Savior in the City of David. He is here.
And here He is laid in yet a different sort of manger, that is to say, a different sort of feed trough. And how appropriate that is, since He has come to be your Food, to give Himself for you to eat.
So it is that, just as He was laid out in the wood of that manger, He is now laid upon the Altar, the greatest Gift of all, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and given to you beneath the Tree of His Cross. Here and now from this Manger, He gives you His Body to eat and His Blood for you to drink.
You can picture the scene, though the reality is hidden from your eyes. The Lord God Almighty, laid out in a narrow wooden box, a feed trough for animals. And He Himself lives like an animal, born in a stable. As He will ride a donkey to His death, so has He come to be a Beast of burden, to bear the burden of sin and death upon His own back. And so does He become a source of food, the Lamb led to the slaughter, sacrificed upon the Cross, and given to feed His priestly people.
The Lord thus comes and identifies Himself with the weak and poor, with the lowly and despised. He identifies and associates Himself with the homeless, with outcasts and the gossiped-about; with the likes of Mary and Joseph, who come to his family’s hometown, and the city is so full of his relatives that he has to care for his nine-months pregnant wife in the stable. Don’t romanticize the story. Give thanks to God for St. Mary and St. Joseph, indeed, but realize how they were viewed and treated by the people of their own day. They weren’t pictured on postcards or postage stamps.
The shepherds were likewise viewed as lowlifes, the dregs of society. Considered little better than criminals, they were not even permitted to testify in court. Best for them to stay out in the fields with their sheep. Yet, the angels of heaven appeared to them and announced their Savior’s birth.
He comes to and for such people, because He has come to save the world from sin and death. From the least to the greatest in the eyes of men, He identifies Himself with the predicament of poor sinners. With your predicament. With your neighbor’s predicament. With everyone. He has come to be Good News for all the people. So He makes the circumstances of all people His own.
He is the true Light in the darkness. He is Clothing for the naked. He is Food for the hungry. He is Shelter for the lost. He really is. He’s all of that for you, and all of that for your neighbor. For both your body and your soul, not only now but forever. That is who He is. That is what He does.
So, if you would go and visit Him, as the shepherds once did; if you would love and serve Him because He is your Savior and your heart overflows with gratitude; if you would thank and praise Him, who gave Himself for you and sacrificed His body and life that you might live, then look to the needs of your neighbor. Look to the one who is hungry and feed him. Look to the one who has no place to sleep, and provide a bed, a pillow, a blanket, and a place to be, a place to belong.
Look to the needs of your neighbor. And within your own office and station in life, whatever it is — a shepherd, a teacher, a student, an accountant, an engineer, a computer tech — whatever it is that God has given you to do, wherever He has stationed you to be, that is where and how you serve your neighbor. And that is where and how you serve the Lord Jesus Christ in your neighbor.
Do what you are able. And do it with joy and confidence and gladness. You can, because the Son of God, your Savior, Jesus Christ — the Son of David, and the Seed of the Woman, St. Mary — He is your Refuge and your Strength. He is your very present Help in trouble. And no less than He has identified Himself with your neighbor, so has He identified Himself with you, as well.
He has visited you in mercy, and He remains with you in love. He has redeemed you with His own flesh and blood, and you are His very own, purchased with those most costly Coins.
He is your Light, and He is your Life, and He is your Salvation. He is your Shelter in the storm, and He is your Meat and Drink indeed. He is the One who clothes you with Himself and His own Righteousness. So it is that, in Him who is your Savior, you do have Peace and Sabbath Rest. Death shall not have you in the end, for to you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.