This Advent, Remember the Poor

This Advent, Remember the Poor December 1, 2018
                                                                    “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” by Franz Francken, 1613, Public domain.

I’ve been a Catholic for twenty-one years now, and among the many beautiful gifts I discovered in my reconciliation with the Church, the season of Advent holds a special place. Growing up in a typical American evangelical home, we went straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas (and from there directly to Easter and then to the Solemnity of the Fourth of July). In the home of my youth there was no consciousness of Advent, of a season of mystery, longing, and paradox. Mystery because we wait for His coming in the flesh at Bethlehem, and this incarnation is the supreme mystery of our faith. Longing because we wait for his coming again at the end of time, when our redemption and the redemption of all creation will be made manifest. Paradox because we wait daily for his coming into our hearts. As the novelist Michelle Blake writes, the paradox of Advent is “that while we wait for God, we are with God all along, that while we need to be reassured of God’s arrival, or the arrival of our homecoming, we are already at home. While we wait, we have to trust, to have faith, but it is God’s grace that gives us that faith. As with all spiritual knowledge, two things are true, and equally true, at once. The mind can’t grasp paradox; it is the knowledge of the soul.”

Over the last many years, however, I’ve come to recognize another reality about the days and weeks of Advent. We who are able and so inclined will sink comfortably into this beautiful season. As the Feast of the Nativity approaches, we will no doubt trim the tree, ring it with gifts, and decorate our homes. There will be cooking, baking, the pervasive scent of pine, family gatherings in the evening lamplight, and music. A lot of music. We will sleep in a little longer, or read that book we’ve been meaning to get back to, make plans for the new year, and count our blessings.

But those on the margins, especially the poor, will experience Advent and the Christmas season that follows very differently. The poor will often have to choose between providing their children with a happy Christmas or paying the rent. They’ll walk around with a knot in their stomachs, the ruinous arithmetic of the season occupying all their thoughts, their desperation deepened by advertising which suggests that unless they can buy the latest and the most expensive they are losers and unworthy. Once again, they’ll find themselves out in the cold, faces pressed against the frosted window, and wondering how they missed out on the lovely party inside.

The lonely, the sick, the displaced, the abused and abandoned, refugees and asylum seekers, and many of the elderly will all experience similar psychological and emotional pain this Advent, as they do every year. Our faith teaches us that their suffering is the suffering of Jesus, and we have the opportunity to minister to Him by ministering to them. Begin by looking for the drawn faces, the downcast eyes, the pursed lips exhaling stress and confusion. Have a kind word for those you meet, but especially for retail workers, who labor like dogs for little pay and face the prospect of layoffs early in the new year. If the same developmentally disabled man bags your groceries every week, look him in the eye and thank him by name. If you know a family that’s struggling, offer to help with their Christmas, or simply slip a store gift card into an envelope and leave it in their mailbox. If there’s a giving tree at your church, don’t take one name. Take two. Or five. If you have to, cut back on gifts to your own family and tell them why there’s less this year. I promise that they’ll understand. Double your regular gift to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or your local homeless shelter. Make a place at your Christmas table for the shut-in neighbor, the single mother and her kids, or the immigrant family down the street.

Pray for everyone you encounter this Advent, but remember the poor in a special way. Resolve to be Christ to them this year. In return, they’ll become Christ to you, and your Advent will be doubly blessed.

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