Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, a season of waiting. It is a season of preparation. Probably most importantly, it is a season of making room for Christ. As there was no room in the inn and thus our Lord was born in a manger, so too in our lives things become busy and crowded. The metaphorical inn of our lives becomes filled with an ever-growing list of things to do, people to see, projects to wrap up, work, friends, family, and the temptation to hang the “no vacancy” sign on the door for anything more than what we already have to deal with. Advent is a time of waiting for Christmas, but most importantly making room in our lives for Christ. This, in part, is why I have chosen the book The Uncluttered Heart: Making Room for God During Advent and Christmas as an Advent study recommendation. And if you’re too busy to read this book, you probably need to read it more than the person next to you in the pew.
I believe that how we treat others is a measure of how much we love Christ. In fact, I could add some precision to that statement. How we treat the most needy, the most vulnerable is a measure of how much we love Christ. In one of his teachings Jesus explained to his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory…Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then they will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” As Saint John summarizes this teaching, “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” I believe this teaching is fundamental to understanding Advent, this time of making room for God.
Mother Theresa once said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.” In many ways, this instruction of Mother Theresa summarizes the Christmas Invitation, as I shall call it.
In considering the birth of Jesus Christ, theologians often speak of the condescension of God. Take note that was not the condescending of God, but the condescension of God. Merriam-Webster defines condescension as “voluntary descent from one’s rank or dignity in relations with an inferior.” This is what God did in the Incarnation. In the birth of Jesus, the Eternal One, our very God becomes human limited by time and space as one of us. The All Powerful One becomes powerless, a mere child dependent on his mother Mary. The All Knowing One becomes confined in the intellect of a child. This is the condescension of God, so that God might see us eye-to-eye and bring us salvation. This condescension of God models for us compassion that seek that meeting place with the other.
If it is true that our love for one another—especially for the most needy as exemplified by Jesus’ teaching—is the measure of our love of God, perhaps the Christmas invitation is this: to make more room in our lives for God as he comes to us in the stranger, the alien, the outcast, the downtrodden, the downcast, the prisoner, the addicted, the estranged, the too often unseen and forgotten. Next Saturday we serve food at our Food Pantry, which is a significant commitment as a church, but we are also presented individually with the opportunity to come and serve, not just to pass out food, but to welcome those who live on the margins—to look into their eyes, for a brief moment to take interest in their stories and lives, and to recognize that their humanity and our own is just as frail. What more fitting time than Advent to make room in our lives for this encounter. I invite you to join us next Sunday at 11:30am.
How we see our neighbor is the measure of our regard for God. How we treat the stranger among us, speaks volumes about our belief or not in grace. The truth is that God is always seeking room in the inn of our lives, which is already full. Advent is a time of confronting that ‘no vacancy’ and making room for God. The Gospel calls us first to show our love of God through love for those on the fringe, those barely hanging on, the forgotten ones. If Christmas is indeed God’s condescension, a voluntary descent from the highness of heaven, majesty and glory, to the stable to see us eye to eye, perhaps Mother Theresa’s words are a fitting Advent instruction, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”
Next Saturday is our chance to serve food to the neediest in our community. Sacred Space is also an opportunity every week in Hayward or Oakland to come alongside those who are on the fringe of our society. All of these encounters, however, are about much more than food. In fact, they become our chance to see God face-to-face. And what could be more important than that? After all, isn’t that what the Christmas story is—God’s condescension from the heavens to the cradle…to look us face-to-face?
What would it look like if Christians everywhere approach our enemies, our neighbors, the alien, the outcast, the upright and haggard as we would Christ? White, black, latio, Asian, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, crabby and friendly people alike, beggars at the BART station and street corner, clerks at the grocery store, bankers and politicians, police and protestors—what would it look like if we in our daily life approach everyone we encountered as we would Christ? May this be our Advent challenge! May we always make room in the inn of hearts for Christ in his many faces!
And so, the words of Christ echo through eternity, today as loudly as two thousand years ago: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
© The Rev. Justin R. Cannon