This post is a reflection on Dorothy Day’s classic advent writing…Room for Christ by Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day has a way of hacking into our sophisticated means of cushioning the incarnation, doesn’t she? There is little that we, including me, would love more than to believe that Christmas is something that we simply need to remember. Wouldn’t it be nice to say that Christmas was a thing that happened in a different era; “The Bible Times,” as we like to say. It was a thing that happened and it has meaning for us today. And isn’t that lovely and worth commemorating with pageantry and especially crafts and baking. We have quite literally domesticated Christmas in the tamest and most disappointing sense of that word.
But remembering Christmas doesn’t seem to be at all what Dorothy Day is calling us to do. “It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late.” For Dorothy, the mystery of the incarnation is that is always about to happen if we are to make room for it, especially in the form of those who are poor or suffering. Christmas is hardly something to be remembered. It is a thing we are to do in our time, and with our time, and it will always be a possibility in front of us. Dorothy Day seems to be under the impression that making room for Christ is a task in perpetual need of being fulfilled, and that we are the people to do it.
It is no wonder she seems to think this way. Dorothy Days is a woman whose life was spent fighting off cheap grace and soft metaphors. For her the Shepherds do not represent the humblest part of our souls or an aspect of spirituality, they represent migrant livestock workers who are poor and are kept on the margins of society. The Inn keeper does not represent some abstract part of our spiritual journey. The Inn keeper was a man who had to make choices about whether he should kick paying guests out of their beds to make room for a woman who was doomed to ruin his mattress. And for Dorothy Day, those are the same kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves today.
I know this kind of Christian talk may seem extreme. It is. “We have no room in the Inn,” we say. “What does Jesus expect us to do? Kick people out of the beds in which they are sleeping and have already paid for? Must we take a financial loss to prepare a space for the Son of God? The bills still show up Monday and we still have to pay them….. Let us be practical about this.”
Except, nothing of the Gospels ever speaks of being practical, at least not in that manner. Instead the gospels always call us to live in the kingdom-come, the World-as-God-meant-it. We are to be the clear confrontation of the unnecessary competition, violence and suffering in this world.
In Advent we realize that Jesus did in fact come to earth, but in a very real sense never stopped coming. Jesus is perpetually standing at the door and knocking… and it isn’t just the door of our hearts, it is the door of our house, duplex and apartment. If we answer he say that there are a couple million Jesus-es out here ready to ruin your mattress and He asks, “What are you going to do about it?”
Back then he came as a homeless child who was born into filth. “But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, “ Day writes, “with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” There is no metaphor here. The poor are Christ.
Jesus has never stopped showing up at our doorstep. Not then and not now.
“If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality for Christmas–or any other time, for that matter–to some man, woman or child, I am replaying the part of Lazarus or Martha or Mary and that my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no haloes already glowing round their heads–at least none that human eyes can see.”
I remember when my favorite and best teacher of theology, Jim McClendon, tried to sum up his radical theological position. He would say it is a simple matter of discipleship, of believing that, “This is That, Then is Now.”
What he meant was that it is not merely enough for Christians to make metaphors of all the characters who encountered Christ. Not everything is a metaphor. The world Jesus was born in to is in some way the same world Jesus is trying to be born in to today… through the witness and lives of the whole body of Christ. We live in the same circumstance of Jesus’ life. The struggle of discipleship is to see how and then to act accordingly. Then is the same predicament as the predicament we are in now. We just have to learn to side with the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.
We are not meant to simply remember Christmas, we are to recognize it, re-present it , and be it every day of our Christian lives.
I get it. This is rough because I am not quite ready to be as exactly compassionate as Dorothy Day was at the end of her life. I am clearly not already a Mother Teresa or a Jean Vanier. Not Yet. Neither are you…. yet. And I don’t think Dorothy Day has any interest in drumming up a new legalism… Just how poor does one have to be before one counts as the poor that God favors? This is not at all the right question.
But if I listen to her well at least I am moving in the right direction. I am hearing the call of Jesus who stands at my front door and knocks. I am thinking critically about how radical good news for all people would be. I can pray as the man in the Gospel of Mark chapter 9 prayed, “ I believe, now help my unbelief.” Help me, Jesus, to make actual room for you in my house, in my wallet, in my car when I pull up to a stop sign, in my friendships, and in my budget. You are Lord. Be born here in me… today.
“It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late,” Said Dorothy Day. “Do you have room for Christ?” she asks plainly. Great, then scoot over because he is here… hiding in the poor, now act accordingly.
This post was originally written for the Advent devotional for Saint David’s Church in Austin.