“She gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.”
8524 Kathleen Ave.
It is an ordinary address inSouth St. Louis County. There is nothing fancy about the house there. It is a smallish framed structure which had aluminum siding and a slightly tilten porch covering. The sides and back were painted with a tru- ly awful shade of grayish blue, which must have been on sale at the hardware store at the top of the hill.
There used to be bushes in the front, before the new owner had them taken out. And there is an addition on the back which hardly made this modest structure into a Better Home and Garden Prize Winner. By anyone’s standards, it is a simple, commonplace, everyday, run- of-the-mill residence. But if I become Pope someday, it will become an American landmark. (Don’t bet on that. Don’t even take odds.)
8524 Kathleen Ave. For thirty-eight years, I called it home.
It was the place where I grew up. It was the place I learned about love. It was the place I often learned some rather harsh lessons. I heard many a lecture there when I came home late at night. It was the place where I learned the meaning of the words: faith, discipline, honor, neighbor, charity, family. And it was the place where I had first encountered my God.
If you were to go to that house today, no doubt you would still hear echoes of my sisters and my brother and I giggling at the dinner table when my dad asked for only five minutes of silence. You would hear whispers of solace as my mother sought to comfort me at five years old when I had an earache. And if you listened really close you could hear the Sing Along with Mitch Miller Christmas Album as the family sang around the tree as lights twinkled and tinsel glistened. We were Santa’s first stop, so we got to open our gifts ear- ly. I will never forget those Christmas Eves at home, as long as I live, laughing, drinking eggnog, ripping into our gifts.
And I will never forget the day twenty-seven years ago when my family finally sold that modest home, after the death of my father. I will always recall how dislo- cated, disorientated and disturbed I felt. It was as if someone had pulled me up by my roots.
And yet, if I am honest, even that feeling cannot even begin to compare to what it must be like to be home- less, to be without a place to lie down, without a place to call one’s own, without a place to find warmth in all its forms and incarnations. There have been few sights in my life which can compare to actually seeing people living right on the streets, nowhere to go. It is always shocking to me whether it be in Calcutta, San Diego or even good ol’ St. Louis.
And the sad, but true, reality of our faith is, according to Luke’s gospel, that this is exactly what happens to the Holy Family when Jesus was to be born. They go to Bethlehem for the census, and they find no room at the place where travelers lodged. The King of King, the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace, the Promised One of the Ages, and there is no room, no place, no vacancy. There is nowhere but a stable for him to be born.
Our faith reminds us that from the night of that birth on, nothing in our world would ever nor could ever be the same. God’s very life coming into our world has totally and utterly changed things. All of creation, because of this feast, is now charged with the grandeur of God. All human beings, because God became human, have a new and special dignity that wasn’t there before. And we have hope. Hope of salvation. Hope of joy. Hope of freedom. Hope of love.
And yet, there are many in our world who look at us Christians at Christmastime and ask us what real difference all of this makes. They see no Peace on Earth. They feel no good will. They hear no glad tidings of great joy. Instead they sense greed and hate, despair and death. They point out that there are still homeless Mary’s and Joseph’s seeking shelter. It is appalling, but true, that thousands of lit- tle ones have no addresses in America. Where is that hope you keep telling us about? They challenge us to see if there is any room in our lives, any room in our hearts for Christ to come. As Thomas Merton said, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited.”
If you drive past the Franklin County Courthouse at night you will see a truly remarkable sight, every win- dow has a candle burning in it. My dear Irish mother would tell me that the Irish would put candles in their windows as a indication to the Holy Family that here is a place, in the midst of a cold and often inhospitable world, where they could come and stay. It is beautiful and powerful symbol. And it reminds us of our need to be open, open to the Christ Child, wherever we may find him, especially in the poor, in the homeless, in the lonely, in the weak.
My prayer for you this Christmas evening is that as you and your families gather around the glistening tree, drinking nog, tearing into presents and maybe even dusting off the old
Mitch Miller album (does anyone play albums any- more??) you may open up some of the over crowded- ness in your heart and soul and make a place in your homes for the Christ Child, however and wherever you may encounter him.
And if you do, wherever you may go, wherever you may roam, you will always find a place called: home.