As someone reminded me during this Christmas season, Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Or, as a priest I knew used to say at the end of Mass many years ago, “May the unrest of Christ be with you.”
I’ve been painfully aware of my status as one of the “comfortable” during this season. One day during Advent, I traveled for a meeting to my Midwestern state’s small capital city. I found a parking spot on the top floor of a crowded garage, and being directionally challenged, I carefully memorized the floor number of the elevator I entered so I’d know how to find my car later.
When I emerged from the garage, the first thing I noticed was a bearded man sitting nearby with a sign, obviously begging. Our eyes briefly met. The second thing I noticed was how quickly I turned away. I’m not proud of that. The third thing I noticed was that I’d emerged from the garage on a different street than I’d entered. Where the heck was I?
Oh, I know all the excuses about giving to street people: How do you know they won’t buy alcohol with your money? Shouldn’t you contribute to a shelter instead? Big cities have beggars on every corner, and you can’t give them all money, can you?
The trouble was, I wasn’t in a big city. I was in our small capital. I like to think we take care of people here, but presented with an example of need, I turned my head.
I had my personal excuses as well. Since I’d exited the parking garage on a different street than I’d entered, I panicked — as I said, I’m directionally challenged. I walked away from the man and his cardboard request, which I hadn’t even read, scouting for a street sign to orient myself so that I wouldn’t be wandering later looking not just for my car but for the garage that held it.
I’d also forgotten to bring cash from home, so I had two $5 bills in my purse. Let’s see, I calculated, I could pay for the parking garage with my credit card, and still have money left for my coffee (my coffee, of course). But that would be cutting it short if I gave him $5.
By the time I figured out my geographical position and evaluated my cash shortage, I was down the street. Should I go back and give him $5 or proceed to the coffee shop and on to my meeting? You can guess which one won.
Guilt crept into my day. Those eyes from which I turned became the eyes of Jesus. To my surprise, before I reached my destination, I encountered another homeless man, not begging but sleeping. He looked like an Old Testament image, completely enshrouded in a large black blanket. His face was eerily shadowed within the blanket, only a white beard visible.
Good heavens, I thought, first Jesus and now a God-the-Father image.
But the man with the sign lingered in my mind. He remained as I drank the coffee I bought and ate a warm cinnamon bagel provided at the meeting.
I believe he’ll linger into my New Year, afflicting my comfort and asking me if perhaps I, in my self-centeredness, was the one sent away empty.