“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” [LK2:6]
At this "Inn" the Holy Family occupies the same kind of tent as those residing at Pinellas Hope.
Two years ago this very night, literally wrapped not in swaddling clothes but rather three blankets covering those pitiful, ill fitting and impossible to wear with dignity hospital gowns, I was rolled in a wheel chair to St. Anthony Hospital Chapel for a Christmas Eve vigil Mass. I will readily admit to being an emotional wreck that night as my endocrinologist had visited my room within the hour before Mass to tell me that there was strong evidence that my kidneys may be failing, dialysis at least temporary, was a strong possibility and the reality of going home in two days as planned could be discarded. I was lonely, depressed, and fearful for the future, and weeks since offering or attending Mass. I was essentially spiritually homeless. At some point in the journey from hospital room and bed to the chapel, I had a moment to look out that evening on what was an unusually cold night here, and saw about ten homeless people along St. Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue, making their way slowly to their overnight accommodations outside and underneath the expressway adjacent to St. Vincent de Paul and across from the hospital. I thought to myself, “Lynch, you have little to complain about or to fear. You at least are being taken care of. Someone is watching over you.”
Before Christmas Eve dinner about 150 residents gathered for Carols, a reading from Luke's Infancy Narrative and some prayer and reflection which I felt privileged to lead.
Earlier this evening, I led an interfaith Christmas prayer service at Pinellas Hope. It was entirely optional for the 396 residents living there tonight, in tents and tiny wooden casitas and it preceded the annual Christmas eve dinner, which for five years have been the gift of one of my colleagues and his family. Two homeless people brought a small plastic replica of the baby Jesus seemingly out from nowhere and placed him into a manger scene consisting of, you guessed it, the same kind of tent they live in 24/7 at Pinellas Hope for however long they reside there. Those in attendance were proud that their baby Jesus had a place to stay, which they had erected and prepared. We fed 176 on this Christmas Eve and as two years ago, it is from the homeless I have learned a sense of gratitude and a deeper meaning of Christmas.
Homelessness is a central part of the Christmas story. The long awaited Messiah and King of Israel was born essentially homeless but still loved, longed for, and embraced. It is so often when we are encumbered by the stress especially of this season, that we lose as I did two years ago the sense that it is precisely in adversity that God works His best wonders. Someone historically anonymous made room for Mary and Joseph that night, gave them a place where a child could be born, and to which visitors, unlikely visitors at that, could come and pay their respect and their reverence.
Mrs. Kurci and Ed, the gardener who lovingly cares for "The Garden of Hope" where fresh vegetables are being grown for use in feeding the homeless housed there.
Those visitors, the shepherds were also homeless. Nomadic by nature and vocation, they had no way of knowing for sure where they might be the following year or what challenges might await them. Yet, they saw a star and heard the voices of ones sent by God and for a time left behind every worldly possession they owned to share this seismic moment in human history when God took on our human form and dwelt amongst us.
And while the Christmas story is so charming it is also challenging. Homelessness for Mary, Joseph and Jesus did not end when the new mother and her child were capable of travelling safely and securely back to their home in Nazareth, but rather because of jealousy they would soon flee and become illegal immigrants making their way to alien Egypt, living essentially homeless until it was safe to return home and begin again their life as a family.
The Kurci Family baked 30 sweet potato pies from sweet potatoes grown and harvested from the "Garden of Hope" inside of Pinellas Hope.
We come to Church tonight to sing ancient hymns of joy and happiness reminding us of that “holy night”, to hear again the story of the dear Savior’s birth. Tonight Christ is not born again in human history but Christ can be reborn in each of us. However, we cannot and must not leave him homeless but rather make a home for him within ourselves. The Christmas story can match every longing, fear and anxiety we have tonight and as in the game of poker, “raise it” as well. But the love of God, the trust and faith in God and the hope in God which marked the central figures of that first Christmas assures us that we need not be homeless but have found Him for whom generations longed to see, to experience, to know.
Every year for five years on Christmas Eve, the Murphy family and their neighbors have purchased and served the Christmas Eve dinner at Pinellas Hope. Here are just a few of them before the "rush" begins.
Spiritual and religious homelessness also means that all of us need to recommit to meeting Christ regularly in the sacraments of the Church. It is time for Catholics to Come Home. Sadly but realistically, we know that the second largest Christian body in the United States, behind practicing members of the Catholic faith, is to be found in Catholics who have left us or fallen away from their faith. Perhaps you have seen in recent days the invitations conveyed on television asking those who have been hurt, felt alienated, perhaps embarrassed by the patent sinfulness not of the Church but of some of its leaders and members, to return. We promise a better reception should you return than whatever the circumstances were which caused you to leave. Just as we want and work to alleviate the pain of homelessness in our society, county, city, and neighborhood, we want to alleviate also the pain of spiritual homelessness. Our priests, our deacons, our religious and our lay leaders have all been working to provide a genuine welcome. My two homeless friends at Pinellas Hope could only bring to the manger tent an image of Jesus. We want those who are spiritually homeless to receive the real thing, Jesus, body and blood in the Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church.
There is room within the “Inn of Christ’s Church” and we promise to do everything we can to make you feel at home again.
I cried two years ago at that Mass I described at the beginning, not knowing if I would ever see another Christmas. I now truly believe that God heard the prayers of many and of myself that night, for I was released the day after Christmas as planned and now wish to devote my remaining energy to spreading the truly good news of Christmas and Easter: Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has Risen, and while Christ will come again, He is among us tonight and every day, just for the asking. In the name of the Word made flesh, I beg you to come home not just for Christmas but for the rest of your life.
Wishing all God’s people, Catholic and non-Catholic, the greatest of blessings this Christmas day and peace to all people of good will. Merry Christmas.
Bishop Robert N. Lynch