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One of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems concludes,
All came bearing offerings
all of them, like cherubim,
sang His praises.
And He gave off a soft fragrance
as the Rose of all roses,
and was a circle
surrounding the homeless,
wandering in disguises and changes
among all the rising voices of time.*
This poem, rich with allusions to the incarnation, reminds this reader of the priest encircling the altar, censor in hand, surrounding the holiest of places with the protecting aroma of incense. Yet in Rilke’s imagination Christ Himself is the fragrance, not bound to elements on the altar but surrounding it. And in place of the Host are the homeless, like icons placed on the altar inviting reverence, veneration, and prayer.
The homeless of Rilke’s exquisite musings may have come in a different guise from those we see sitting on the streets of Chicago with their hand scrawled pleas or standing in long and aimless lines at shelters; perhaps he had something altogether different in mind when he spoke of them in their disguises and changes. Not all the homeless lack shelter and bread; there is a homelessness of the spirit born of a lack of love or purpose, of discipline or peace. There are many for whom life is an endlessly bleak midwinter hidden behind Gold Coast facades.
But in this season of incarnation I suspect the poet would not want us to merely spiritualize and thereby risk trivializing those who are homeless, who lack a bed, a radiator, a bathroom, the protection of a locked door and perhaps more than anything else a nightstand on which to place the picture of someone they love, of someone who loves them. Our minister told us on Christmas Eve that on any given night there are 100,000 homeless people in the city of Chicago. It is a shocking figure, even if not all are literally on the street.
We don’t know what to do with them. We give them a little money, sometimes. We avert our eyes. We avoid their stench (which seldom reminds us of roses). We support communal meals at churches and shelters. We grow annoyed with their aggressiveness and then feel guilty. We wonder about their stories, reminded that once there may have been mothers or fathers holding them with as much anticipation and hope as we see in the faces of an Italian Renaissance painting. They will always be with us, Jesus tells us, less a statement of endless cynicism than a reminder of enduring responsibility.
But even more shocking than the reality of their circumstance and condition is the possibility that these are the very ones encircled by the aroma of Christ – a great sort of iconostasis inviting us into the mystery not only of human suffering but also of our personal and corporate failure. What if Magnificat is right, that to these, rather than to us, the Wondrous Gift is given? Like those bearing offerings for Him, like cherubim, singing His praises, we come. Yet, the soft fragrance encircles the homeless! Is this the odd epiphany we are to experience amid our privilege and comfort? And if this is true, what might it mean for how we live, and love, and give?
These quiet days between Christmas and Epiphany (excepting riotous New Year’s Eve!) invite reflection. The streets are less frenetic, the office half empty. Business schedules and church activities are suspended. The school yards lie still. Our poem begins. . .
The branch from God the tree that reached across all Italy
has already bloomed.
It might have liked
to hasten becoming heavy-laden with fruit,
but grew weary at the height of its blossoming –
and now will yield no more.
It felt only the spring of God’s presence,
and only His Son, the Word,
came to fruition.
All strength turned
toward this beaming boy.
All came bearing offerings. . . .
God comes with a fragrance for the homeless, encircling, embracing those we find difficult, often impossible to embrace. Judgment, yes. But also Good News!
John H. Thomas
*From Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark S. Burrows, 2013