Bishop Nicholas Hudson gave this homily at the JRS Advent Service, in Farm Street Church.
Ask any Refugee or Asylum Seeker what he or she likes best about this church, and I’m confident it will be this, the sculpture of the Homeless Jesus. The one who has nowhere to lay his head; not really to lay his head. Yes, he’s found a bench but as everyone knows who’s been homeless when you sleep rough, you sleep with one eye open your head is never truly resting. Jesus used that phrase about himself. If you remember ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, he said, meaning he would always need to be on the alert, always on the run.
As Jesus was arriving into this world, Luke tells us Mary and Joseph could find nowhere to lay him down. They had to settle on an outhouse where they could only lay his head in straw prepared for animals.
That’s why Saint John Chrysostom tells us as Christians to remember the poor. ‘Do you wish to honour the body of Christ?’ he asks, ‘then do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honour him here in the church building with silks only to neglect him outside when he is suffering from cold and from nakedness, for he who said “This is my body” is the same who said “you saw me a hungry man and you did not give me to eat”. Of what use is it to load the table of Christ? Feed the hungry and then come and decorate the table you are giving a golden chalice and you do not give a cup of cold water.
These are sobering words and they find an echo in another saintly man whom we’ve been thinking about much in recent years, Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Christmas before he died he spoke these words at Mass ‘If we wish to find the Child Jesus today, we should not expect to find him in beautiful crib figures. We should look for him rather among the malnourished children who went to bed tonight with nothing to eat. We should look for him among the poor newspaper boys who will sleep tonight on doorsteps wrapped in their papers’.
Pope Francis captures the essence of this when he urges us not to forget the words of Saint John of the Cross that ‘As we prepare to leave this life. We will be judged on the basis of love’. As we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love.
I was once in a prayer group where someone asked “How does God answer prayer?” “Through us” replied an older woman. He answers prayer through us and she should know she’d helped found the hospice movement. That was a marvellous movement which transformed the way the sick and dying were cared for in this country. Ever since this pandemic took root people of faith have been asking God to save us, to set us free from this contagion and now their prayer seems to be being answered through the inventors of not just one but several vaccines. We can look at scientists and say through them. He answered our prayers through them.
We call Jesus Emmanuel a name which means God is with us. But how is he with us? Through others. We know it instinctively. That’s why, if you think about it, every film representation of Jesus birth has a good woman from the town who comes to help Mary in her moment of need. I don’t know a single film of the Nativity which doesn’t insert this generous soul into the drama. When I see this saintly woman comforting Mary and tending the newborn baby, I think of words which Pope Francis has been saying ever since he became Pope. That when you reach out to the poor and needy you touch the wounded Body of Christ. When you give welcome to the homeless man or woman who comes knocking at your door you welcome the homeless Christ.
At the end of time we shall see Jesus risen from this bench now in all his glory accompanied by angels and we shall hear him say to us “Come you blessed of my father because I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me drink, sick and in prison and you visited me, a stranger and you made me welcome. Now, let me share with you my home forever.”
Watch a recording of the JRS Advent Service on Youtube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OLo8uA3Z-s