Even after the ten minute walk from a cozy coffee shop to my warm and comfortable office this morning, I was panting with the cold. Whenever the temperatures reach these extremes, I find myself thinking a lot about people without protection from the cold, who spent last night sleeping on top of heating vents or curled up in the back pews at my church downtown.
About 60% to 70% of Milwaukee's homeless population lives in my neighborhood, and part of the reason I choose to live in the city is that it makes it just a little bit more difficult to forget them. Of course I can spend all kinds of time being "aware" without doing the slightest good to anyone, which is why "awareness" campaigns of various kinds always strike me as a bit pointless. Thinking has to lead to action - for me, the thinking part comes easily, and the action is a little more difficult. But I'm going to keep trying, and I thank God for the voices in the Church speaking out against complacency.
We are challenged to see Christ in the poor, in the prisoner, in the sick, in the desperate. An artist recently created a powerful image of Christ as a homeless man. Of course, every time we pass a nativity scene, we're seeing a depiction of a homeless Christ. Maybe at this very moment on the day before his birth, Mary and Joseph were walking the streets of Bethlehem exhausted and without resources, with nowhere to sleep and with night approaching. Mary's contractions were getting closer together and Joseph was close to panic. Maybe one of the innkeepers told them that they should have thought ahead, and that their poor planning was hardly his problem. Another inkeeper could have seen the market potential of the sudden influx of visitors for the census, and taken the opportunity for a little price gouging that put the cost of a room outside of the Family's limited budget.
The scene at the manger is one of sublime beauty and grace, of course, but it's worth remembering that this feast is a celebration of the Emmanuel: the God-with-us. Christ isn't just spiritually or symbolically united with our neediness and want and cold and hunger and desperation. He came to us in the weakness of a human body precisely so that he could live all of these things with us, as one of us. If we are to be his continued presence in the world, as he calls us to be, it can be in that way and no other.