The stars of the first Christmas were a road-weary homeless couple and their child. Their story embodies the true themes of Christmas: selfless sharing, peaceful sacrifice and the moral obligation to care for the homeless and the hungry. In a season too much given over to flashing neon reindeer and credit-card shopping sprees, we must remember the original meaning of Christmas or lose it in a flood of day-after sales.
God entrusted his only son not to King Herod or to a Roman emperor but to a couple who had no place to call their own-- which means we can never think of Christmas without thinking of the homeless. The star of Christmas was not a political power broker or the small-minded innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away at the door. No, the star of Christmas was the homeless couple itself: Mary, a young mother, and Joseph, an unassuming carpenter. And behind them were the wise men, who followed a star blazing in the heavens to bring their gifts to the homeless couple alone in the stable.
On the day before the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph had been dutiful and obedient. They had gone before the census officials to be counted; they were doing what they were supposed to do. When they got there, Herod had not provided houses for his people, and the innkeeper (the HUD officer of his day) threw a book of rules and regulations at them. You see, they had arrived too late and they didn't have enough money, and there was no room in the inn. The bureaucracy crashed down on them.
But Mary did not surrender under that pressure, nor did her family collapse. She and Joseph turned to each other--and to God. In the dead of winter, they found the only place available, a stable with no hot water, no ceiling, no furniture, no insulation. The place was not fit for human habitation. Mary could have died in childbirth from exposure; Jesus could have had complications at birth.
But, beyond the depth of the darkness, a star was shining. Three wise men took their gifts not to each other, not to other privileged people, but to the homeless couple. They did not send their gifts; they brought them by hand-delivery, which was even more important than the frankincense and the gold and the myrrh they carried. It was their presence, not their presents, that counted.
During this Christmas season, there are 3 million homeless people in America, among them young pregnant mothers, unemployed fathers and children, all roaming the streets in search of refuge from cold and hunger. They live in the back seats of abandoned cars, in the damp basements of apartment buildings, on cold park benches near the thriving crack cocaine traffic and on the heat grates that surround new high-rise office buildings downtown. Families with children represent the fastest growing sector of America's homeless population.
There are abandoned babies in the manger as well: crack-addicted mothers checking into hospitals under false names and addresses, abandoning their babies soon after birth. There are fathers deserting pregnant mothers, and mothers deserting children and children deserting their homes. And there are politicians all over the land deserting families and communities by turning away from their problems.
The Christmas story encloses a message for all of us. Herod must provide houses to the homeless. Bureaucrats must be sensitive to hurting people. Wise people must take their gifts to homeless people; it is precisely their service which makes them wise. The Christmas gift is being able to serve and to give, and what we must give first is our presence, our witness.
The poor must not surrender hope. Just because they are homeless does not mean that they are hopeless or helpless or that their moral obligation to be honorable, faithful, decent and dutiful is reduced. You can be poor in things and rich in spirit.
It is not wise merely to send a trinket or toy to the children of the economic underclass, or one hot meal once a year. In the Christmas season of materialism and token charity, only a few can participate. In the real Christmas, everyone has a role to play. Everyone, rich and poor, must make his presence felt and give love to those who need it. If we truly care about the homeless and the abandoned, we will fight year round for public policies to build affordable housing, provide quality education and decent health care for everyone.
On this Christmas, I am personally very blessed by an event that took place in the project where I grew up, Fieldcrest Village, a public housing project in Greenville, S.C. Two weeks ago, the residents of the project renamed the town homes after me.
This project is now largely inhabited by the people of the so-called underclass--senior citizens and mostly women and children at the poverty level. Like much of the nation, they have been ravaged by poverty, drugs and closed doors.
By giving me this gift, the people of these town homes also give me the challenge and the opportunity to serve them. Their gift binds us together forever. My return present is to dedicate to them my presence, my love and my energy to help break the cycle of despair of all those living in the cold mangers who are being rejected by the callous innkeepers of our day. We must not forget to include the authentic stars of Christmas, the homeless and the hungry. They above all deserve a Merry Christmas.