HE APPROACHED US LAST FRIDAY morning during the Day of Giving that Bell Media was running for the London Food Bank. The downtown market was busy but somehow he seemed familiar. He dropped his three bags of groceries into the waiting bin, stopped for a moment, and said quietly to me, “Thanks for all you’re doing for folks. I’ve had to use the food bank during some of the worst moments of my life and I just felt I had to give back.” I asked him for his phone number so we could talk later and then he was off.
When we finally connected later in the day, he told me of how his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was a teen and how he had only known poverty since. He had fallen into substance abuse for a time, even suffering bouts of homelessness, but had pulled himself out of that state, taking on odd part-time work. His fiancée died of an embolism two months previous and he was in a funk. Then he heard of the food drive on the radio and began making his way to the market. He was no longer one of winter’s outcasts, but an abundant giver of groceries out of the little money he had. I hung up the phone, emotional and humbled by his durability and outlook.
For anyone willing to consider the longer arc of that original Christmas narrative, something similar appears. We know that the night in the manger was probably the last of the young family’s peaceful days for some time. Almost overnight they became refugees. On the threat of death they quickly travelled cross-border into Egypt in search of security.
This much we are aware of, but we frequently overlook the words of that child when he got older. Looking out over the beleaguered age and a fearful people, Jesus said, “Do what you can for the least of these.” But then he put his words in context to those days following his birth.
“For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me water. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you provided them.”
He was recalling his refugee days, those moments where only through the help of others could his family survive and he now wanted to give back. He was reminding us that we need to go deeper in order to reach higher – deeper into those moments in our lives where we learned from our parents, a teacher, a lover, a friend, a faith, a circumstance, or a workmate, the value of giving.
In knowing loneliness we have learned to be better companions. In feeling outcast, we have become more welcoming. In failing we have become more understanding of the weaknesses of others. In moments of emotional trauma we have learned to triage our own resources in order to help others heal. We learned all this, not at the knee of Santa, but at the feet of humanity and we are better for it.
We understand that in a world where violence begets violence and destruction follows destruction, something new needs to arise. We are reaching a threshold. Only a great sense of purpose can overcome our fears and change our divided world. We know from experience that without passion nothing happens, but we are witnessing in our own time that without true compassion, the wrong thing happens. In places around the world it is passionate people who are killing for their cause and the more of them there are, the more troubled we become. Only when compassion itself governs our choices can we hope to heal our world.
And that is the moral of this story: let’s be kind and welcoming this holiday season because we have had such privileges afforded to us in the our past. Like the man donating at the market, we have all been shown kindness by others and it is ever our turn to act in similar fashion. The Christmas story continued in the life of Jesus because his manger still cast a long shadow over him. He had been hungry, hunted, and hated but in the most crucial of moments the kindness of strangers turned him into a giving being. Now it’s our turn this Christmas season. It’s not a question of acting different, but of being who we are in our best moments, and we have plenty of those to give.
Merry Christmas, and the most meaningful of holiday seasons to you all.