Cambridge, MA. I am sure that every reader has by now seen the picture accompanying this blog, of the New York policeman kneeling down to give a homeless man, poor and cold and barefoot on a winter’s night, a warm pair of shoes that he had bought with his own money. The story was told with simple directness in the New York Times on November 28, where the picture, taken by a passing visitor to the city, was also posted. I need not try to add anything to that story or the many follow-up stories on the web. [12/3/12: see the latest at the NYT site, including the name of the homeless man; I have not updated this blog.] But on this first Sunday of Advent, I do want to suggest, by way of addition, that it is a powerful story with which to begin this season of waiting, being awake, paying attention. (What follows is the gist at least of my homily this morning.)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus announces the things to come, even in this generation: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 24.25-26) The words naturally point our attention to the largest scale catastrophes, in the heavens and among the stars, and in movements of the sea greater than Hurricane Sandy; but surely all of that devastation and woe might also be encapsulated in the prospect of a homeless man, ill-dressed for the cold, bereft and alone on a city street, vulnerable most starkly in his bare, unprotected feet. I am sure there is a story to be told about him — and it will surely appear online soon enough; but without disrespect for his individual circumstances, his own story and virtues and vices, he might also be taken to stand in for all people in trouble, due to poverty or sickness or war or violence or our coldness toward one another. He is, that is, a sign, the hidden Jesus in our midst. As Jesus says, “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” (24.31) God is coming, perhaps in judgment, perhaps to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, perhaps to throw down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. When Jesus says to pay attention, to be wide awake, he is asking us to take one step forward in this Advent, by noticing the man on the sidewalk, his poverty and bare feet, as a sign of all the great problems of nature and society, error and sin, that beset our world.
But the sign is not simply the homeless man; it is also the policeman, Officer Lawrence DePrimo, counterterrorism expert, who is down on his knees next to the man. Officer DePrimo, this latter day good Samaritan, stepped for a moment out of his duties in the face of the large scale issues of violence and terror and safety, and decided not to pass by this man in need. As Jesus tells us to do, he did pay attention, he did notice the signs of the time; and in that way, he himself becomes part of the story. For this Advent, the signs of the coming of the Messiah are not just the images of woe and sorrow and terror; the signs are also, as Chapter 24 of Luke says in an intervening passage, the signs of new life: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” (24.29-30) In these small acts of love, a new world is growing unseen in our midst. Christ comes to the darkest and coldest and poorest scenes to be sure, but he comes also whenever someone stops and does a simple act of kindness for a brother or sister who cannot pay you back. If you see a policeman kneel down and help a poor man into new shoes, then "know that the kingdom of God is near.” (24.31)
But there is one more player in this drama, Jennifer Foster, a civilian communications director from Pinal County in Arizona. It was she who noticed what was happening, and stopped and took the picture; she said thanks to the police department, and sent along the picture, and now we know about this tender scene, both the neglected poor man, and the act of kindness that might otherwise have passed unnoticed. At the start of Advent we are called first of all to be like Ms. Foster. Before we start deliberating what we can or can’t do or should do to help others, whether we can be as generous as Office DePrimo, before all that, Jesus is asking us just to take just one first, small step: Stand up, stand still with your eyes open, and notice what is going on.
At the start of Advent, then: See the great and cosmic woes besetting our world, and the small moments of desolation and misery right on our street, or on campus or in the next office or in church or at home, and realize that the Lord is coming, no longer tolerating the intolerable. Take a picture, burn it in your mind’s eye.
But also: Notice the great and cosmic flow of goodness that also keeps our world alive and good and holy, and the small moments where our neighbor stops, puts her or his work aside for a moment, and clothes just one naked brother or sister, and realize that here too, all the more, the Lord has come. Celebrate the act of love.
But also: Be the messenger, notice when others call our attention to the misery and the love, and pass along the good news that is good because many times people do not neglect to stop and look into the face of all the suffering of our world. Take a picture, spread the word.
Advent is for practicing, to notice and pay attention to the worst and best of our human condition in a world that is becoming worse and better at the same time, where Christ has still not arrived but where he comes every day.
Some day, I may be the man on the street in the desperate need; some day, I may be the woman who stops and helps the stranger; in the mean time, Jesus tells me to just be a human being who keeps my eyes open, not averting them from my brother or sister who has no shoes. He asks me to fasten my attention in gratitude on the next passerby who in a random act of kindness stops and helps my sister or brother in need.
Four weeks to Christmas; plenty of time, all we need to do is open our eyes, and see.