It was the first day of the Nativity Lent for many Orthodox Christians and without planning it
intentionally, we had volunteered to serve dinner at a local women’s homeless shelter. My dear
friend had labored to make the main course, delicious Sloppy Joes, seasoned with her own
blend of spices and homemade sauce. A meal ordinary in name but extraordinary in
composition, as she had labored to make this general fare healthy and full of flavor. A meal
skillfully prepared for the guests at the dinner table that evening.
I had talked with her on the phone the day before as she worked out the details of driving
home from Chicago in time to pick us up and make sure the Sloppy Joes were warmed and
ready to eat. Despite a hectic day of traveling for work, she had volunteered to coordinate all
that was needed to bring the meal together. Her work unseen by most, but I had the privilege
of seeing, of helping.
Another friend had made delicious pumpkin bars. I had been at her house the day before,
sharing a cup of coffee, as I watched her scrape the cooked pumpkin from its skin, mashing
the purée in a bowl. She sat down, thumbing through the pages of her recipe book with all of
her tried and tested work—loose pages and cards, assembled, well used. Recipes that told
stories. She was trying to find her favorite pumpkin bar recipe, a dessert she had served
before, acclaimed and praised by others. Her special recipe, perfect for the guests at this table.
Her endearing two-year-old asked questions, needed to use the potty and wanted to paint, all
while we conversed. My friend got up from her seat, her pregnant body moving about the
room, helping her daughter, entertaining her friend, making her dessert. She brought the bars
the next day to the shelter and they were perfect—carefully crafted and prepared, spiced moist
cake with creamy frosting. The work it took to coordinate getting them to the shelter and the
time invested in making them, unseen by most, but I had the privilege of seeing it.
Two of my daughters ventured out with us that night and they were excited to help, to give in
their own way. We had made some simple marbleized chocolate cookie bars for our portion of
the dessert. We used a recipe that had been handed down to us, tested and enjoyed, using as
many wholesome ingredients as are allowed in cookie bars. The girls were full of joy.
The opportunity for them to use their hands and time to help, to smile, to feed. We talked about
the ways that we encounter Christ in those who are suffering, particularly the homeless whom
we were going to see that night. We had used our hands to prepare the food and were
preparing our hearts for the gift of encountering Him in the poor, the Unseen in those who are
seen. Our hearts longing to experience the Divine in this simple, humble way.
We piled in the car, the cold night air calling to our minds those whom we were going to serve,
those who thankfully had shelter from the cold for the night—but what about those who did
We stepped out of the car, looking at the entrancing city skyline and beautiful sacred
architecture of the Catholic cathedral looming above us. The crisp air stung in my lungs—a
harbinger of winter and inevitable cold. Outside of the shelter was an isolated bench with a
sculpture of a homeless person lying down. The light from the sacred structure above fell
perfectly on the bench, illuminating the obscured figure.
Upon closer study, it was the sculpture of the Homeless Jesus, a figure shrouded in a blanket,
identity masked except for the feet, bearing the nails of Christ. The visible expression,
represented in artistic form, of the reality we had been contemplating. This sculpture has been
described as the “visual translation” of Christ’s words, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew
where He says, “Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My
brethren, you did it to Me.” At first the girls were startled as the lifeless figure looked so real
from a distance. Then it became clear, the sculpture before us teaching our hearts, preparing
us for our work.
We gathered the food, our combined hands carrying in that which was prepared for our guests,
for Christ. The words of our Lord echoed in my mind, “for I was hungry and you gave Me food,
I was thirsty and you gave Me drink….”
Single women gathered on one floor, women with children on another. Our team assembled
and dispersed, all volunteering to serve in different ways. I chose to serve dessert, the girls
chose to go upstairs and be a youthful presence to the little ones there, serving the meal with
the warmth and innocence children offer.
As we approached dinner hour, the ladies gathered in a line, hungry, anticipating the relief and
warmth the food would offer. Since our priest was away that evening, one of the members of
our church asked if any of the ladies would like to offer thanks for the food. One woman
enthusiastically raised her hand and we all bowed our heads.
She began to say grace, “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive
from Thy bounty…,” invoking the Holy Trinity at the end of her prayer. I was moved with delight.
The Holy Trinity, named, thanked and recognized in our midst by those who were about to
receive the nourishment we had brought in service to God, Son and Holy Spirit.
Many came back for seconds, their words of thanks and compliments lingering, enduring.
Juice was offered at dinner but many asked for water, explaining that they were trying to watch
their sugar intake, keep hydrated, etc.
Having just read an article published about the amount of disease rampant in our city, I
watched as people talked, coughed, wiped. My mind instantly aware of our humanity and
vulnerability. I worried briefly and then was reminded of the line in the Liturgy, when we are
preparing to partake of Christ in the Eucharist, “In faith and love draw near….” I prayed this,
reminding myself that I was drawing near to Christ, the Uncreated, present in created humanity.
In faith and love draw near.
One woman stayed after to visit with me. She told me stories of her beautiful granddaughter.
She beamed with pride. She showed me pictures of her art and described her poetry. She
spoke with ease and more refined language. My inner prejudice questioned, “How is she here,
she doesn’t sound like she should be here?”
No sooner had the thought entered my mind when she exclaimed, “People in here ask me all
the time why I’m here or how did I end up here. I tell them we’re all here for a reason. God
We talked about art, writing, crafting. She said someday, after securing her own apartment and
some stability, she is going to come back to the shelter to teach the women art. Her creativity
bearing God’s image to me in that moment; specifically, how we reflect our Creator when we
create beauty with our hands, our words and our time.
We made up some plates for those who could not join us and cleaned up the kitchen. As we
walked back to the car, everyone was sharing their stories, smiling, transformed by our
encounters that evening. The girls came to me later with ideas of bags that we could make up
and keep in the car to give to those we encounter regularly as we drive to school and other
places around town. Bags with snacks, hats, gloves, scarves, and handmade soaps from my
soap business for those who need them.
Perhaps these reflections from this seemingly ordinary evening seem mundane, unexceptional,
common. But I assure you there was nothing standard about that evening for we experienced
Christ and our hearts were made more alive, more fully human. We must learn to see the
ordinary as extraordinary for it is through our common work—preparing food, serving the meal,
offering our time, resources and efforts—that Christ is revealed both in us and to us. That night,
to commence our Nativity Fast, a time set aside to draw near to Christ, He was indeed near
and we feasted in His presence.
Together with her husband and six children, Andrea Bailey resides in Milwaukee, WI, where she attends Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church. Andrea has spent many years working with refugees & international people, teaching English and learning their stories. She has also spent the last six years in the adoptive community, listening, learning and experiencing the complexities, losses and joys of the adoptive journey. Both a keeper and teller of stories, she is striving to give voice to what she has seen and learned, sharing her experiences with others in order that together, we may find a way forward that is honest, transformative and faithful to Christ.
Maybe it was because the choir at church has started singing a new melody for the Cherubic Hymn and I was paying better attention. Maybe it was because the Gospel reading was about Lazarus, who sat at the rich man's gate and begged. Maybe it was because during the Divine Liturgy I'm often thinking about how all of this prepares me for the liturgy after the Liturgy. Maybe it was all three.
After the Great Entrance and related prayers, the choir sings the second part of Cherubic Hymn. All that we have done thus far is to get us ready to receive Christ Himself in the Eucharist. "That we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly...." Bread and wine, now the Body and Blood of Christ, comes to us visibly, yet much more than we can see, we say in faith.
Minutes later, after having received the invisible King and after the final Amens, we are sent out that we may receive Him again. This time visibly in the Lazaruses at the edge of our awareness; in the ones beaten up by thieves and lying along abandoned roadsides; in the strangers, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poorly clothed, and imprisoned ones (let us pay attention to this month's Gospel readings). As John Chrysostom says, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice."
Perhaps when we truly find Christ in the chalice, we will notice that He is everywhere present, visibly and invisibly. May we have eyes to see, recognize, and receive Him wherever He shows up. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!