As I’ve already mentioned, I went to Mass yesterday for the first Sunday of Advent, and had my heart broken.
We got there late so we were in the back, by the foyer Christmas Giving Tree, with some tags still on it– each tag was a request for a Christmas present from a poor person of the community. The tree had been full of tags which parishioners had taken home; now there were presents they’d bought under the nearly bare trees. Only a handful of tags were left. And since the deadline for bringing back gifts bought for the Giving Tree is this Wednesday, I was sure those tags were not going to get taken home, and the people who made those gift requests were not going to get their Christmas wishes fulfilled.
The tags for toys for children had all been taken, and the presents had been brought to the church. Those always go first because they are the most fun to buy. The tags that were left were for the smallest, cheapest gifts: easy-to-chew snacks, toiletries, socks, soda. I saw that the each of the remaining tags had “room” and “bed” numbers on them, and shuddered. They must have come from the residents of the Indigents’ Nursing Home downtown– the facility that the homeless are filtered into when they get old enough to qualify for nursing care. The volunteers from the Friendship Room visit the residents there often, and sing carols to them at Christmas. These are the poorest people, people with little joy to look back on in their difficult lives and nothing to look forward to but Heaven. They get a bed with clean sheets, three meals a day, a basket of the same shower toiletries that are handed out to inmates in prison, and very little else.
That was what I stared at, at several points during Mass. That was what I thought about as we prayed the entrance antiphon, “Do not let my enemies laugh at me. No one who trusts in you is ever put to shame.” That was what bounced through my head as we sang “Let us go rejoicing to the House of the Lord!” That was what I walked past on the way to Communion, singing “The Lord will bestow His bounty, and the earth will yield its increase.”
I took one tag as I left. We could afford that.
I went home and complained on facebook, as I do about everything. My friends heart-reacted and sad-face-reacted; we griped about what the world was coming to if our elders in nursing homes were that poor and nobody bothered to buy them Christmas presents.
And a friend asked if she could send me some money to go buy another one of the presents before the Wednesday deadline. I thanked her, and commented with my paypal address so she could send money directly to me as a gift, without my having to pay taxes on it. She’s Jewish, so I joked that she was the best Jewish Santa ever. She said “thank you for giving me an opportunity to practice tzedakah.”
And then my other friends, my Christian friends, started doing it. Several people put money in the paypal one after the other, with “for the old people” and “for the giving tree” and “for the older people, if there’s any left over give it to the Friendship Room” written as notes.
By morning, I had a couple hundred dollars to spend.
Michael went out on the first bus he could catch while Rosie and I slept in. He got all the tags left on the tree– there were six in total. All of them had “room” and “bed” numbers on them– all, as far as I could tell, were for the Indigents’ Nursing Home.
I went shopping.
I love to go shopping. I come from a long line of women who go shopping just for fun– my dear Granny, in particular, is famous for spending money to save money, hunting for bargains on tasteful clothing at outlet stores. I love to buy presents for people, if I ever have the money. Presents are my love language. And since I’ve been living with fibromyalgia, I’ve discovered that shopping is physical therapy as well as emotional. When I’m fatigued or in pain, I need a certain amount of exercise or it gets worse, but it has to be gentle. Walking is best. Going shopping means I have a large heated room to walk around in, and I can use the cart as a walker if I need to. I often go to TJ Maxx or Wal Mart when I have no money, just to stalk up and down the aisles with a cart and wish I could buy a pile of presents. Now here I was with a wad of cash that wasn’t mine, with the specific mission of buying a big cartful of presents for people even poorer than I’ve ever been. I couldn’t imagine a better afternoon.
One man had wanted cologne and “shower stuff.” I don’t know the first thing about men’s cologne or grooming products since Michael always uses Ivory soap. I only know that the world of men’s fragrances is oddly vague. Women’s scents have a lot of adjectives; they provide you with a long list of the many varieties of flower and herb you’re going to whiff when you open the shower gel bottle. Men’s products just say “FRESH” or “WOODS” or “SPICE.” Whoever that gentleman is, he is going to smell FRESH for Christmas.
The person who wanted a “transistor radio” got a retro-looking radio with headphones and 24 batteries. The person who wanted two pairs of diabetic socks got three pairs. The person who wanted Pepsi got a 24-pack. The people who wished for “soft snacks” got pudding, applesauce and Archway cookies. The person who asked for a “small artificial plant” got an artificial topiary and two miniature cacti. The lady whose only wish was for a stuffed animal that played music got a hippopotamus that sings “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.” I bought enough gift bags, bows, tape and wrapping to cover them all.
And there was so much money left over that the Friendship Room got fresh fruit and an enormous bag of brand new gloves, hats, scarves and throw blankets as well.
I took so long shopping that I missed the bus, and I had too many packages to carry anyway. I texted the lady who gives us rides to Mass on Sundays, and she rescued me right away. On the way home I told her what I’d been up to. She immediately scheduled a ride to drop the presents off at church on Wednesday morning, so Michael and I don’t have to wrestle them onto the bus, without my having to ask.
When Rosie got home from her martial arts lessons, she got out the scissors and started wrapping and decorating gifts.
My front hallway is gorged with presents bought by friends from different faiths and different parts of the country, for strangers who needed warmth and comfort and to know that they weren’t forgotten. All I had to do was notice, and complain, and then go for my weekly therapeutic shopping cart walk. That’s how easy this was.
That’s how easy life could be, regularly, if we all paid attention and weren’t afraid to have our hearts broken. We would find ourselves building the House of the Lord. No one who trusted would be ever be put to shame. The Lord would bestow His bounty, and the earth would yield its increase. In one sense this is all already happening whether we like it or not. But it could also happen in another, concrete way, a way much better for the most helpless among us, if we’d only cooperate.
That’s my miracle for the first Sunday of Advent. We’ve still three Sundays to go.
(image via Pixabay)
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