On the third day of advent, bubble wrap, cardboard boxes and brown paper dominated the back rows at Wellington Cathedral. Mary and Joseph, with shepherds and angels, were shedding their packaging and taking their place in the ‘chapel without walls’. At the same time and in the same space, microwaves, kitchen bins and hoovers, pots and pans and glasses, tins of peaches and soup, and freshly laundered sheets and duvet covers were being ticked off lists and tucked into boxes. These were collected and donated by parishes in the Wellington Diocese to equip homes for families of refugees, newly arrived in the area. You don’t need me to make the connection.
This wasn’t a Christmas special, room-at-the-inn kind of effort. The Anglican and Catholic Dioceses mobilise a bunch of parishes every other month to kit out houses like this. The Anglican side of things is run – naturally it is – by a volunteer, a woman of retirement age, a matchless, determined, gentle soul whose skills in persuasion, database-wrangling, checklist-checking and co-ordination are the engine by which this epic effort runs. Thinking I should make myself vaguely useful while I’m here, I joined in, spending a couple of days doing sorting and packing at the cathedral, and joining a small team setting up a house. We unpacked boxes, made the beds and filled the cupboards for a family arriving tomorrow. One woman brought home-baked muffins and a bunch of sweet peas.
Let every heart prepare Him room, we sing.
My time here – it’s hard to believe it has been just a little over two weeks – has provided me with freshly laundered layers of imagery for what this means.
Another example. I was given a front door key when I arrived here and have used it precisely three times. Most of the time the door is open. This expresses completely the spirit in which I have been welcomed. Under this roof, two parents, three children and two students rest their heads. They’ve opened a room for me while I’m here – and more than that, meals, prayers, deep conversations, and shared endeavours (this morning, for example, a Hairy McLary jigsaw) – and last night, at less than 24 hours notice, 3 further students were squeezed in so they could join a refugee forum at the nearby university.
O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide thy heavenly home.
I’m reading the gospel of Luke during my sabbatical and recently read:
“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’”
Something about the sing-song cadence of this made me suddenly wonder whether this was a refrain Jesus’ mother Mary found herself half murmuring, half lullabying to Jesus as they moved, time and again, throughout His childhood. Jesus was so used to being hosted – but in the world He himself created. It’s we who are the guests in His creation, and at His table.
I’ve just been chatting with one of my hosts here who was telling me about a reflection on the word welcome. I am well because you have come. I am more whole, the suggestion is, because I have hosted you.
Our songs of Advent teach us to prepare to be both host and guest. Both are costly. Both are enriching.
It’s got to be said, too, both benefit a good firm tug away from abstraction and towards practicality. Both are about food and washing up, taking turns in the bathroom, and communication. They’re about mutual attention to one another’s needs for prayer and solitude, conversation and company – and proper attention, too, to one’s own. Being a host, and being a guest, in other words, both train us to be more human.
As we anticipate the birth of Jesus, who shows us humanity perfected, might this be the Spirit’s work in me.