“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
– Dorothy Day
“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
– Mother Teresa
The Christmas holidays are a difficult time for many. It does not seem that it should be this way. This is the season of great joy, the moment when we celebrate the coming of Christ into our world – not only 2000 years ago, but here and now, every day. That said, it is also the season of more secular forms of merriment. For those who struggle just to put food on the table, facilitating Santa’s magical journey for their children is a near impossible feat. However, this is the season when communities come together, when food drives and toy drives abound, when all band together to become those people of goodwill to whom the angel promised peace. Don’t we?
This year, I have received a taste of why plenty of people find this season hard. It is not just material poverty that people struggle with. It is loss, loneliness, and exclusion. My decade-long relationship – one that for years I hoped and prayed would become a marriage – came to a bitter end two months ago. Thankfully this does not mean aloneness for me – my parents are still alive and in good health, and last night I had the blessing of sharing a delicious Polish Christmas Eve Wigilia meal with them and an old friend whom I’d not seen in two years. But unfortunately, this was not completely satisfactory for my mother, who at every holiday laments the fact that her sister and two adult nieces opt not to include us in their own holiday revelries.
For my mother, who grew up in the 1950’s, this icy treatment on the part of our relatives puts a huge damper on her holiday. During her childhood getting together with family meant getting together with the whole family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, multiple generations come together to share a special meal. For most Americans this paradigm began to shift in the latter half of the twentieth century toward looser family bonds and greater individualism. Nowadays, “family” most often means nuclear family. And unfortunately, this is what happened with my two cousins. Once they got married and had children of their own, they lost interest in more distant relatives. For a few years they invited us to their holiday gatherings, perhaps out of a sense of duty, and barely spoke to us throughout the event. About ten years ago, the invitations stopped coming. We were no longer welcome.
I hardly need to say it hurts to feel left out. I’m sure you’ve all been there at some point in your lives. Sometimes, a fight or rift with a loved one might drive the exclusion. But other times, it is simply thoughtlessness. We only have time and energy for so many people; most of us don’t devote substantial time to speculating about who in our lives feels excluded and how we might include them. As the poet Emily Dickinson puts it,
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then — shuts the Door
To her divine Majority
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
However, not everyone closes the valves of attention in this way. I’ve always marvelled the Jewish custom of getting married under a chuppah – an open canopy that symbolizes the home the bride and groom will build together. While the chuppah has a ceiling, it has no walls, symbolizing the new home’s openness and the family’s hospitality. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church – which declares itself to be universal and open to all – has welcome built right into its theology. We believe that all are invited to the table; no one is to be excluded. Though it is true that we only permit baptized Catholics to receive the Eucharist, we offer baptism to all who seek it and blessings to everyone else.
For my parents, the attitude of welcome and “the more, the merrier,” has been a central component of their life together. When holidays come around, they do make sure to seek out friends and acquaintances who have nowhere to go, letting them know that they are always welcome to gather around our table for a meal and our piano for some singing. Since the early 2000’s they have hosted nearly twenty exchange students from China, France, Spain, Pakistan and Brazil – some who stayed for a few short weeks, a few who stayed for several months. This is the ethos they’ve passed down to me. No one is perfect, and there are certainly many times when out of tiredness or sheer thoughtlessness I have excluded people. But I am generally willing to let anyone under my roof. Perhaps for the purely self-interested reason of struggling to combat loneliness, I am happy and eager to make my little home into a chuppah. And this holiday season, I urge you to do the same.
Like many other Catholics, I am appalled at the ways in which the recent extremist attacks in Paris and California have led to a backlash against Syrian refugees, and I know many of you are, too. Over the past months we have been inundated with anti-Muslim rhetoric, fear-mongering, and the message that we can only protect ourselves by excluding others. But this is not the only discourse we have encountered. In Chicago, three nuns from the Society of Helpers are preparing their home to take in refugees. Many people are preparing to help in other ways, donating money or items of food or clothing.
As we look at the troubles in our world, it is easy to become discouraged. But, as many religious leaders have commented over the past several days, this is precisely the kind of world into which Christ entered 2,000 years ago. He was born to a poor Asian family and almost immediately was forced to become a refugee in Africa. Today, we are called to invite Jesus into our homes and hearts in whatever guise we find him. Can we not see him in the faces of the myriad political, economic and environmental refugees knocking at our doors?