Always on Christmas, there is a sense of disconnection for me. Back when I thought I was going to be an Episcopal Priest there was the same sense of disconnect. My Family was hundreds (and later thousands) of miles away. My friends all did their family things. Later I discovered the “orphans’ Christmas” which was a collection of people getting together because they had no other place to go. It always seemed to be at least as dysfunctional a gathering as the families we were all avoiding. I stopped going after a while. We are meant to be with blood-Family, I think, on Holy Days. Family is the smallest unit of the church and it’s not replaceable. So while I can call home on Christmas (and I do) I miss the gathering of 65 people (or more) that were all my relatives in one small town – that was a Holy Day. All I have now is a day off from work with religious obligations.
So I was struck after Midnight Mass by a tweet from a friar calling attention to the Christmas Message of the Master of the Dominican Order. The Master hits on this curious point in the First Christmas story:
At times, we tend to “sanitize” the disturbing details of the Christmas story. The nativity scene in our churches and convents appears to be a tender and warm picture of a loving and peaceful family. But as we pause and ponder, we realize that it must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown, for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married. It must have been terribly difficult for Mary to deliver a child in a smelly stable and then have a manger for his bed. It must have been terrifying to know that a king who feels so insecure threatens their newborn son and has ordered the killing of many innocent male children. The Gospel on Christmas day speaks about the world rejecting the One they needed the most: He came to his own yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11). There is a “dark side” to Christmas. No matter how big or little they are, the sadness and emptiness we feel even during Christmas day is part of that dark side that we have to acknowledge in order to let Jesus, our LIGHT, shine through that darkness.Fr Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP
I’ve never actually thought about it before. Our culture turns the Holy Family into Politically Correct stand-ins for political refugees, migrant workers, or homeless people. Then Christians fight over this reading. The Biblical text tells another story that will be far more familiar to any Christmas Orphans out there. In this story, the Dysfunctional Family of David tried to ruin the first Christmas. …[I]t must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown, for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married…
After St Joseph’s experience, the Church spent the first 300 years of her life rescuing not only lost souls, but also those who were rejected by their families: babies, elders, and the infirm who were abandoned on the hillsides. Families could literally throw people away. These are not just the “poor and the homeless” as we think of them today in our cities: these were the rejected, the broken, the used up. Slaves that could no longer to the tasks allotted them, daughters who dishonored their families by getting children outside of wedlock, elders who were too sick and drained the family wealth, unwanted babies (especially girls), or the blind, the deformed, the mentally ill. The Christians went out to the edges of the city and brought these folks in, healed them, raised the babies, comforted the dying. In this way, the Church evangelized literally by action: the religion of your Pater Familias abandoned you to die on the hillside. The religion of your rescuers told them to love and told you to forgive. The early Church didn’t ask these folks to change as the price of admission to love (as Roman Paganism did) but rather these folks changed their lives as a result of the love they experienced from God through the Church.
Pope Francis calls us “to the peripheries”. Speaking before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Bergolio said:
The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.
Today on the peripheries we might better think of our homeless encampments as more of the same: adding drug addiction and even prostitution to the list of ways that men and women might end up on this list of Unwanted Family. When I read a newspaper story earlier this year about the Homeless of San Francisco, I was surprised by how many of them had family – but couldn’t go to them.
So, not just peripheries of geography (are there any peripheries there any more?) but the Church also has a mission to the peripheries of sociology.
Many of the homeless men and women in my neighborhood are rejected by their families for issues around sexual morality. This is especially true of the youth. I wish it were not the case, but “Get out of my house…” seems a horribly common thing for religious parents to say to their children. How are we supposed to act, as Christians, in this case? I know there are some who want to use this sort of story as an argument for changing the Church’s teachings. Sed Contra, I see it as a chance to enforce the Church’s teachings on charity, love of family, and mercy. We should make it a mission of the Church to welcome in those who are shunned and even shamed by their families.
One Christmas, after Midnight Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC, I went down to what I used to call “My Parish” in Greenwich Village. If you go into any gay bar you will find men who are angry at the Church. But on Christmas you’ll find something else entirely. In NYC the bars close at 4AM, but by 2AM on Christmas morning you’ll find the real orphans: the men who have no “orphan Christmas party” to go to, who have no other place to be, who are lost. When I walked into Ty’s the only people in there were the Bartender (he had a home to go to, but he was at work…) and a drag queen who was in “boy drag” as the saying goes, sitting all alone. The bartender greeted me warmly, gave me a drink (4 actually) without charging me and left me to chat with the other patron as he went about cleaning up. We were watching Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.
It was all chitchat. We sang along to the movie. I shared about Mass and the guy remembered St John the Divine and commented on the beauty there. And he grew wistful talking about fond memories. There’s no religious conversion here, but when I moved away from NYC, I got a going-way card from the man who thanked me for that night of friendship in a bar when it was very dark in his life. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.
Let me point in another direction: as many of our parishes become rest homes for aging members of the over 6os set, who wish to be unchallenged in their cultural hegemony, we should realize the peripheries also contain Techies and other Millenials who are very successful in the world but, for exactly that reason, are disconnected from their families and any social structures. Many of them lack the social sense even needed to recognize the need for religion in their life. But they need God as much as anyone. I mentioned this once to an Parish Council as was greeted by stony silence. These folks need Jesus, too.
Fr Timoner points out that “Christmas is not just a celebration but a mission.” We each have missions, of course, but the Church’s special mission has been outreach – we go beyond. Beyond the boundaries of the Jewish People, she embraced the gentiles. In Roman culture, she embraced the outcasts. She reached out to the Barbarians – the enemies of the Roman State. She embraced other cultures and peoples at every turn.
This is the Church needed today. This is the Church we have, to be honest, even though there are some who try to deny this along the lines fear of the Other in all forms: race, nationalism, populism, and sexual morality. We have forgotten again that the way to bring folks in is not to demand they change as the price of admission, but rather to let them change as a result of being loved. “…[T]he mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery” lives on the edges of our lives: usually just outside of our doors or in the discard pile of our social media.
Can the Church reach out in these directions: on the one hand to the lost, the marginalized, and on the other hand to the folks who seem to reject us as quaint and old fashioned? Again, the interesting point is that from a societal, political point of view, each of these groups is “successful” in some very worldly ways. But how can they find the Gospel unless they hear it first, and how will they hear it unless it is preached?