It all took place over 20 years ago. Rosemary and her family were living in Boulder, Colorado, at the time and it was Christmas. It had been the family’s custom to travel here and there or welcome family into their home at Christmastime, but this particular year was different for one reason or another. Christmas was going to be a little quieter and a lot less mobile. They did invite three of their friends to join the family for Christmas dinner: a couple without children and a single person.And then, there were the two homeless men. I’m not sure where they got the information, whether it was from their church or something they read in the newspaper, but they heard that the homeless shelter in Boulder was trying to match up homeless people with – what else – a home just for Christmas, just for a single meal, just to spend time with a family. The family talked it over and decided that perhaps this was something they should try.
So they contacted the shelter, which, I guess, is a huge one in Boulder, and got it all lined up. On Christmas Day, the family drove to the shelter and picked up the two men who had been assigned to them and brought them home with them. There they were joined by the other three guests.
The homeless men each carried with him a black garbage bag that contained their “stuff,” all of their belongings. They didn’t dare leave it at the shelter that day because it probably would have been stolen. So they piled into the car with their assigned family along with their two garbage bags and headed to their home-for-a-day. The family assured both men that they would be back at the shelter by 7 p.m. That was absolutely necessary in order to guarantee that the men would be able to claim a bed for the night before they were all taken up.Well, as she told the tale, I had to interrupt along the way to satisfy my own curiosity. “How were they dressed?” I asked.
“Not as shabbily as you might think,” Rosemary said.
“And how did they smell?” I asked sheepishly.
“There was no odor issue,” she said kindly.
The men were in their 20s or early 30s, she thought. When they sat down with the family and the other guests, they ate like there was no tomorrow. “I fixed up big plates covered in foil so that they could take some back to the shelter and do it all over again.”
When dinner was over they sat around with the family and read newspapers and talked about current events, watched the football game, and even took a nap on the couch. “They were longing for family contact,” Rosemary said.
I had to ask, “Did they say anything about their own families or where they came from?”
“Yes, and they said they wanted to be with them, but they had a lot of shame over things that had been said and done so they didn’t make the effort to go home, nor did their families know where to find them.”
Now we come to the crux of this story. Rosemary’s son Eric was four-years-old at the time. Sometime during that Christmas Day, he looked up at these two men and asked them if they would like to see his room. The three of them headed up the stairs. Rosemary, like any good mom, wanted to keep an eye on things without being nosey or rude or spying, so she busied herself in the hallway outside of Eric’s room and occasionally walked by to see what was going on in there.There sat little four-year-old Eric on the bed, one man on either side of him, and he was showing them his own stuff. Stuff that he would probably never have to carry in a big black garbage bag. Stuff that little boys treasure in their comfortable rooms. Rosemary said it was a wonderful sight.
Then it happened. As the three rose from the bed to leave the room, one of the men looked down into Eric’s wastebasket and spied a newspaper that Rosemary had tossed there when she was cleaning the day before. He reached over to pick it up and Eric, in the manner of a typical four-year-old, offered this personal insight to the moment. He said, “Oh, you should take that. Maybe you could find a job in there.”
Rosemary was dying in the hallway.The man simply looked at the little boy and said, “Thanks, Eric. I love to read newspapers.”
That Christmas night, the men gathered up their big black garbage bags, their plates of food and the newspaper that had come out of Eric’s wastebasket and the family took them back to the homeless shelter. They all figured it would be the last time they had any contact with each other.
Two weeks later, the phone rang at the house. It was one of those two homeless men. It was, in fact, the one who had picked that newspaper out of Eric’s wastebasket.
Why was he calling? He wanted the family to know that in that newspaper he had found a want ad and he followed up on it. The man had gotten a job.Today, January 6, marks Epiphany. That’s a day on the church calendar that acknowledges the arrival of the Wise Men, the Magi, to see the baby Jesus. Most nativity sets have the Wise Men gathered there at the manger with the shepherds, the animals, and a host of others added over the years but who are not mentioned in the scriptures (like the little drummer boy). Scholars tell us, however, that the Wise Men probably didn’t show up until Jesus was a toddler.
I’ve often wondered what makes a Wise man wise? These three were not kings or from the East as the old Christmas carol would suggest. They were astrologers heading east, following a star. Magi is a derivation of a word that can be translated wise. They were not Jewish but probably pagan. What they knew, and what would help me define them as wise is that there was something different about the night sky for several months running and they decided to do something about it.
A few of my seminary colleagues and I conjured up a term we called “Holy Whew!” to help us express those times in our lives when times and events have collided in just a way that our eyes have been opened to something different, something nuanced in our relationships, our living conditions, our place. Those “Aha!” moments. Those epiphanies that are otherwise unexplained. For those who believe in God, and, as the Wise Men knew, even for those who don’t or didn’t, they are moments when we know that God is at work, has a plan, and is calling us to attention; calling us to act.
There were several “wise men and women” at Rosemary’s house that Christmas, but I think the three wisest of the men were the two homeless men and four-year-old Eric. There was an epiphany or two that happened not only that day but weeks later.
The Wise Men arrived to visit Jesus all in God’s perfect timing. The knowledge they acquired along the route helped save the infant from King Herod’s order to kill young children.
And in God’s perfect timing, God takes a little thing like a four-year-old boy extending the hospitality of his wisdom and turns it into a job for a jobless and homeless man.
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. — Matthew 2:1-12