We Christians are entering what will likely be one of the strangest and most distracted Advent and Christmas seasons that most of us will ever experience. Many of us will hunker down and stay apart from our loved ones, unable to celebrate and gather as we usually do. Advent and Christmas services will stream online or occur with just a fraction of carefully spaced church members.
Many will grieve the loss of the season and the ability to embrace those we love, even as we grieve those who have been lost to us during this strange and pandemic year. And yet, for those who celebrate the season of Advent as prayerful preparatory to the celebration of the birth of Jesus two millennia ago, this time — even in the midst of a pandemic spike — might just be the opportunity we need to reconnect with the God who, so we believe, stooped to become one of us.
“Advent may be the best time of year to consider what will come out of the pandemic we are suffering through, for this liturgical season reminds us of our time of hope at a time when it can be difficult to find hope in the world,” writes Fr. Joe Tetlow, SJ, in the current issue of Jesuits Central and Southern. “As the virus seeps everywhere, nothing could make us more hopeful than remembering that our Creator and Lord has come into our flesh.”
Advent is traditionally seen as a time of hope for Christians who celebrate the season. Even in such a seemingly hopeless time as now, we wait and hope to welcome Christ once again into the world. It’s a time to challenge ourselves to consider whether we might, unlike the innkeepers in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, make room for a wandering, poor, seemingly homeless young couple looking for a place to get warm and bring a new life into the world. That’s the question we get to ask ourselves: Do we have the courage to open the door and make room?
In his 1965 essay, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” the late poet, author, mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote:
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied status as persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world.”
I’m not sure there has been another time in my 60 years that I have felt so much like I was living in a “demented inn.” The world seems wracked in pain — in disease, in social and political unrest, and in every conceivable kind of violence. And yet, we believe, Christ comes — has come and continues to come — to those who believe. Whether we invite him or not, whether we are aware or not, Christ is present. He is not far away, waiting on a high mountain for us to struggle up to him. He is not buried deep in the rubble of history waiting for us to excavate him. Rather, he is present to us in the warmth and safety of our quarantine.
And if we really believe that, we must be willing to become aware of all the others to whom he has come as well. Our faith compels us to respond and lift up — now more than ever and in unimaginably charitable and just ways — the poor, the homeless, the wandering young families looking for shelter and warmth. We must be willing to provide safe spaces in the demented inn.
If during Advent we welcome Jesus and turn away the stranger at the door, we fail to live up to the promise of hope that we say stirs in us at Christmas. If we want to show the world the “true meaning of Christmas,” if we want to really “keep Christ in Christmas,” then we must let it find us loving and caring for each other.
Steve Givens is a spiritual director and widely published writer on Christian spirituality. He is a member of Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield and a trustee of the Aquinas Institute of Theology.