The intense bone chilling cold of the last week made most of us happy that we had homes to go to and central heating to keep us warm. Over those cold dark and wintry nights I was thinking a lot about those men and women, especially in our cities, who are sleeping rough. How is it possible, I have been wondering, to endure those temperatures sleeping in doorways, under bridges, wrapped in a blanket? How is it possible to survive in such cold conditions?
We have seen these people who live on the street so often. People who look so cold and so hungry, so sick, so alone. People who look barely human, who wander our streets aimlessly. Have no doubt about it , like each of us, they are some mother’s son or daughter, unlike us maybe they have taken a turn in the road which has led them to this place, they have slid down to a place where it is difficult to get up from. But their plight in these cold days is too much to bear too much to think about.
A few days ago, on 13th December, there was a remarkable programme on BBC Radio Scotland called skippering. Skippering is the Scottish word for being homeless. The programme was simply the voices of a select group of men and women ion Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow who are living on the streets. It captured the sounds and experiences of being homeless. The silence of the first hours, of the first moment of dawn when the seagulls are squawking; the sounds of the night taxis and the first trains; the sounds of the revellers out for a party on the streets. The voices of the people living rough on the street, accents that we know. It is not difficult to hear other things in their voices, despondency and uncertainty. You can also hear them fighting against the cold, their teeth chattering.
The homeless person, one of the voices told us, that we might see sitting in the street has one of 2 options either to live and sleep on the streets or at best to find a room in a hostel. The hostel is often a grim place which people arrive at because there is no place for them to go, but there is never enough places even there and many simply have to check into places on the streets. Rooms in hostels are normally checked in the morning not so much to rouse people, so much to see if anyone has died in the night – the men and women call it the death check.
The street is not their homeless person’s friend; it is a place of great danger in which they acknowledge they are like animals alert to ever sound. The sleep that they manage is only a kind of ‘half-a-sleep’ as they are attentive to any sounds that might mean danger.
Many who live on the street are physically and mentally ill and often go without basic medical care. No bandages to bind their wounds, no medicines to treat their illnesses.
On the street, the voices told us, there are many responses and reactions to them: they are largely ignored, but often they are also abused by people in different ways, cursing them or often throwing things at them or even physically attacking them. They are often like people who have disappeared down a crack in the road and entered an underworld, a kind of parallel world, a different way of living than any of us are living.
Today at Mass we hear of their patron saint, John the Baptist; someone who is like them and knows their lot in life. Like them he has no home to call his own, no place to lay his head; like them lives in the wilderness. Like them he possesses nothing, like them he wears borrowed clothes, skin of an animal. His dishevelled appearance is like the frightening and alarming appearance of the men and women on the street that we have seen. Like them he goes hungry and falls back, not on the food taken skips of our cities, but wild honey plundered from the bees. He has to endure those people who look away and those people and, like the men and women who live on the street, he too is thrown into prison. John the Baptist is their saint, their champion, their advocate, their soul friend.
It is impossible for us to separate the Christmas story or these advent days from poverty. Our Lord comes into the world and is homeless, our Lord comes into the world and lives as a refugee, our Lord comes into the world in great danger in times when people want to do him harm. He lives not in wealth but in simplicity and obscurity. Those round about him also are touched by poverty too and none greater than John the Baptist, who owns nothing, who lives a homeless life in the open air, who dresses in animal skins and who goes hungry, just like them men and women living today on our streets.
We cannot separate the Gospel story from its poverty.
We cannot separate it form these roots because we can only understand it in this way. God come down to earth right down to earth. Right in the middle of the human situation. Right were many people find themselves. Right into a world and people who live in poor circumstances. But his message is not of despair or darkness, but it is a message as the Gospel says of light. It is a message of redemption of winning back the situation – the blind can see, the lame might walk, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, those in prison are set free. The homeless get a bed of the night, a place to led their head, food for their stomachs, companionship in their loneliness.
It is a redemptive message. It changes the situation, it lifts people up and it sets them free. Its not about bearing the cross but it is about throwing off the cross.
In the last few weeks in the city there was uncovered a modern sculpture. It is a park bench with a man covered in a blanket like many who live on the street, you don’t see his face, his body is hidden from us. It is meant to be the figure of Christ. The message is clear he is here living on our streets.
At Christmas noon day mass we will hear St John says in the first words of his Gospel, the word becomes flesh. He truly becomes flesh to share what it means to be flesh and a human being in our world. In those words it sums up the whole mystery of Christmas, he becomes flesh, he becomes human, he shares our human life.
He is there in our brothers and sisters most in need. Don’t forget the homeless this Christmas in these cold, wintry and dark days.