Our eyes roamed the auditorium as we searched for the seats we wanted. Seats selected, we were halfway down the main aisle when my husband and I turned to look at each other because we both were simultaneously hit with a strong odor. Reading my facial expression, my husband noted “smells like horse manure” and we started glancing around at the boots of our neighbors. The smell was quickly gone, however, but as we lowered to our seats Brian pulled me close and whispered, “It’s that woman sitting over there”. I discretely followed the direction of his eyes and saw the woman we had somehow missed when we first walked by. She was bundled in layers of what appeared to be everything she owned, her hands pushed deeply into her coat pockets, and her eyes locked on the ground in front of her. Brian and I looked at each other and both knew the other felt immediate remorse for verbalizing the earlier smell. I watched as people continued to file in, looking for their seats, and readying themselves for the church service to begin. Each time someone new walked up, they would quickly choose another seat that would allow for some distance between themselves and the odor. I watched as people would search in confusion for the source of the smell and as this woman somehow remained invisible. Very few people noticed her sitting there, bundled and sunken into the chair.
All the lights in the auditorium were turned off to signal the beginning of the service and the second candle of Advent was lit. I felt heartbroken knowing the woman was sitting by herself and noticing how no one had been willing to greet her before the service. I decided that when the part of the service came for everyone to take a couple of minutes to greet others I would go to the woman and invite her to come sit with us. The pastor came on stage and began to pray. I closed my eyes and prayed the woman would be receptive to my invitation. When the “Amen” was said I opened my eyes and turned to find the woman, but she was no longer there. I scanned the auditorium, but there was no sign of her. We finally arrived at the greeting part of the service and I hastily made my way up the aisle, worried that she had left and I would have to go find her outside. Instead, she had moved nearer to the back of the rows and was sitting closer to the door. Her neighbors were caught up in conversation with others around them and she stood there looking at no one. I walked up to greet her and introduce myself, but when she turned to face me instead of giving a response she nodded her head and quickly moved past me and toward the door. Feeling defeated and that we had let this woman down, I returned to my seat for the remainder of the service.
The service continued, but I couldn’t stop thinking and wondering about the woman. There was something about her that drew me to her. This stranger may never know this, but in her I saw both the beauty of God and the mess of myself. The dirt and muck that covered the exterior of the woman looked a lot like the mess and filth that covers my soul. In her attempt to not be seen, she had sunken low in her chair and bundled herself from head to toe, leaving visible only her eyes. In my attempts to not be seen, I too cover myself and try to hide for fear that I don’t meet the standard set before me.
Yet despite these attempts to be invisible, God sees us. God comes to us in spite of our dirty jackets and our mess. Others may look at us and be repelled at our filthiness, but Christ sees us as a sweet incense to be enjoyed. We only see our brokenness, but Christ sees us made whole in Him. We are quick to run when love comes to greet us, but Christ is patient and knows well the art of the perfect pursuit.
The second week of Advent brings our focus to the word Hope. This calls us to live in hope for the return of Christ, but it also calls us to more than merely waiting. I can’t say what, if any, hope that woman had. Perhaps she walked through our church doors in hope that someone would notice her or perhaps in hope for a moment of refuge from living outdoors. Whatever her reason, I know that as the Church we are given the responsibility to both have hope and give hope. I can’t swallow the idea of a Christianity that ignores the plight of others while lavishing in the comforts of safety and security. The word “advent” originates from the Latin word advenio, which means coming to. The Church is called to come to those in need; we are to come to people in their mess, their differences, and their brokenness. The Church is not called to sit in the stands and complain about the action played out before them. On the contrary, we should be coming to people and be elbow-deep in the work of bringing hope.
Whatever your political stance and whatever your religion, I believe humanity is greater than living a life cowered in fear. My prayer this Advent season is we would not shrink from our calling to come to people and to bring hope. My prayer is we would see Christ in each person we encounter and even in ourselves. My prayer is we would not allow political sentiments to dictate how treat our neighbors. My prayer is we would see beyond the external, be it appearance, religion, race, or condition, and be those who bring hope “for the least of these”.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Matthew 25: 34-40