Making my way through the streets of Toronto before Christmas, where store windows glistened with expensive watches and handbags, it was all too easy to close my eyes from some dehumanized shapes. Wrapped in blankets, they peered out with blank eyes from between scarves and toques as they displayed their cardboard manifestos: Home burned down. Wounded Vet. Hungry. Jobless. Help. The message was sobering: We are helpless, abandoned and dependent on your seasonal generosity.
One of my readings during Advent was Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In it, Ignatius invites the reader to contemplate the great mysteries of the Incarnation. He helps you to see and consider the various persons on the earth, “so diverse in dress and behavior...some in peace and others at war, some weeping and others laughing, some healthy and others sick, some being born and others dying.” He then describes God’s compassionate response to blindness, suffering and death in the world. Ignatius says the Lord was born “in the greatest poverty” and experienced “many hardships of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, injuries, and insults.” Though regarded as royalty by the angels in heaven and the visiting Magi, Jesus was born in a manger, and the family was displaced by the threat of violence.
Those living on the street and in shelters share in the experience of transience and insecurity of Jesus’ family. But how often are they welcomed with reverence and joy? Years ago our culture referred to these persons as “down and out”, distinguished from the “deserving poor” who had “pulled themselves together” and were thus worthy of concern. The Christmas message, however, reminds us that those who are without homes are human beings and deserve care. Do we see them that way?
According to a survey conducted in July 2013 the number of homeless in Toronto is up by 24% since 2007. The causes of homelessness vary: domestic violence, untreated mental illness, joblessness, drug and alcohol addiction, H.I.V./AIDS, eviction. Because of local, private, volunteer and public initiatives we now know what must be done to solve the problem of homelessness. Many public, not-for-profit and religious agencies have worked to develop policies that can effectively serve the weak and poor. Meanwhile, as new condos rise in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto, there are reports that many children have no home, arrive to school hungry, and the number of homeless is going up.
We just celebrated the birth of Christ, but the main point of Christmas is often overlooked. It is this: when God entered the world in the person of Jesus, the whole of humanity was transformed. Every person, including that huddled person in the gutter, is Jesus inviting—daring—us to love.
Rev. Tuula Van Gaasbeek
St. Philip's Lutheran Chruch