And that’s why I insisted that my kids take a direct role in feeding the homeless that day. By the end, 30 people had lunch, and my son’s head wasn’t bowed. By the end, his head was buoyed up and he was smiling, glad he’d done it. Glad in an exhaling, amazed kind of way, as if he didn’t know quite what to make of what he was feeling. While I stood off in the distance, or across the street, he’d spoken with men and women, sober and drunk, happy and sad: greeting them, offering them lunch, saying goodbye and God bless you. (His younger brother and sister were smiling as well, having taken part in the same mission.) He even said we should do this more often.
And we did — one more time, not long after. And then we
didn’t do it again. The Christmas Spirit, God help me, faded away, at least as far as lunch distribution went. Life took on its normal shape, with its normal set of middle-class familial concerns closer to hand. Enough of “my time” had been taken up helping my son help his neighbors that I was relieved to have the whole business behind me. Still, when I look back, it’s clear that it was worth more than most of what I did last December. My son’s big-time Christmas present from 2008 sits in a box in the garage, a bunch of plastic and wires that lost its luster when it stopped working to perfection after a couple of months. A lot more time and effort went into it than ever went into bringing lunch to the homeless. And for what? Along with that niggling feeling, there was, once again, the whispered reminder that you really are happier when you bend your will to serve the happiness of others, that love really is the answer, and how many more Christmases are going to have to go by before you learn that simple lesson?
The famous Jewish German émigré Theodor Adorno, in his “Articles May Not Be Exchanged,” expressed the importance of gift-giving perhaps more poignantly than anyone else: “We are forgetting how to give presents….
Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction… Every undistorted relationship…is a gift.”
The Christmas spirit, at its best, is filled with that spirit of giving. It’s a time to remember, a time to appreciate and be grateful for what we have in this life. When I think of my own life, many things are brought to mind. Before my conscious memory, I was the recipient of the gift of giving and care. After I was abandoned by my parents in New York, I was taken care of, along with my older brother and sister, by Catholic nuns in the City.
We associate Christmas these days so much with gift-giving. Yet when I think about the greatest gifts I’ve been given in my own life, they have not been material things. Perhaps my most memorable Christmas Eve, many years ago, was shared with my parents, in the most unlikely of places, a place I never would have imagined they would ever come to. During my years growing up, my parents, though Jewish atheists, celebrated Christmas as a kind of secular holiday. But festive occasions in my family were marred by my parents’ drug and alcohol addiction. Since I was a little kid, I knew that the day would come when I would take my kid brothers and sister from them to raise them in part myself. That day came when I was about 21. My parents screamed and yelled from far away, calling me every name in the book. Yet, a year later, on Christmas, they took me to their new home, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I couldn’t believe it; it was indeed a Christmas miracle.
They told me that they had been dying from alcohol abuse and that, in retrospect, my taking my younger brothers and sister away had saved their life. That certainly wasn’t my intention at the time — my focus was on my younger brothers and sister — though I was pleased it had such a positive effect. My father went back to drinking — no great surprise there — but my mother, after some 50 years of drug and alcohol addiction, remains sober to this day. I didn’t grow up with her; in fact, I didn’t even see a picture of her or know if she was dead or alive until I was 11 — but her getting sober allowed me to have a relationship with her for the first time. That Christmas was thus the unveiling of the greatest Christmas present she could have ever given me: the mother I had never really had. The gift of friendship, of love and community, like that of the Christ, or of the prophets of the Old Testament, leading people from bondage out of Egypt. How resonant that story is, of love, of hope, of redemption. A good thing to keep in mind when we see our brethren this Christmas on the street corner holding signs asking for food, asking for work.
There’s that word: brethren. Echoes of James’s letter to his fellow Christians: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” And who is my brother or sister? Someone even closer to me than my neighbor (see above: Samaritan, Good).
But here’s the fun part, right at the end of that particular chapter from James: “Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route?” Rahab was not a Jew, one of God’s chosen race; Rahab was a prostitute living in Jericho. What did she do to earn this justification by works? She hid a couple of Jewish spies in her home, spies who were helping to prepare an invasion. A fallen woman sides with God’s people over her own for entirely selfish reasons (so she’ll be spared in the coming bloodshed), and it gets her mentioned right alongside Father Abraham in James’s treatment of faith and works. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why no Christian should be sorry to see the Christmas Spirit, along with all the generosity it entails, adopted in an institutional fashion by the wider world each December. You think it cheapens things to have nonbelievers feeling good about themselves for throwing a few dollars into the Salvation Army pot? Remember Rahab.