In Christmas 1947 ACN’s founder, Fr Werenfried van Straaten, wrote the article “Peace on Earth? / No Room at the Inn”. In it he appealed for help for the 14 million German refugees expelled from their homes in the former German territories of Eastern Europe and now living in poverty. His text is the “literally” roots and the origins of Aid to the Church in Need. 70 ears later this text is still relevant.
When Christmas came the first time, the roads to Bethlehem were filled with people, all hastening to reach the town of King David, so that they could be registered there for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. They fought their way forward, with hands and feet and elbows, intent on getting there first; for they knew well that only the firstcomers would have any chance of finding lodgings for the night. And as so often happens, so then it was the richest and the strongest, those on horseback or on camels, or in their luxury carriages, who pushed aside the little ones on their scrawny donkeys and secured the best places in the inns. And so for Mary, who bore Jesus close to her heart, there was no room at the inn.
Can you picture the scene? A town suddenly overwhelmed by people who are thinking only of themselves? Can you imagine what it was like during the war in Antwerp, when the No. 41 tram was attacked? How the people fought and kicked? How the friendly office worker and the small shopkeeper suddenly turned into wild beasts? How every kind of decency and courteous feelings disappeared, and people fought recklessly, each for himself alone? Every man for himself! So it was in Bethlehem too. And so it was that for the Holy Family there was no room. No room for Christ! And Mary sensed that her time had come. And Joseph was at his wits’ end. But there was no solution. Lonely and forgotten, they merged back into that mass of humanity…
Little has changed since then. There is still no room for Christ; because man is still driven by his own selfishness, and because he actually no longer cares, as long as he himself is warm and secure.
Many of us are warm and comfortable; our lives are going well. We have a home, glass in our windows to keep out the cold, and despite the post-war shortages of food and everything else, despite the soaring prices, we actually do not lack much. But do we ever stop to think that, out there, Mary and Joseph still wander through Europe in their thousands? And Christ is weeping in the person of the poor, the homeless and the refugees; the hungry and thirsty, the prisoners and the sick; in all those whom he has called the least of his little ones and beneath whose misery his divine and human countenance is concealed?
Christmas is here again, and Christ is longing to be welcomed by his own. Invisibly, he wanders through our streets and throughout Europe. So do not respond like the crowds of human beasts in Bethlehem, or like the indifferent innkeepers, or the well-nourished burghers in their small-town smugness, but open your doors and your hearts to every need — for it is the need of Christ.
The need of Christ? In Germany hundreds of towns now lie in rubble and ashes. Often almost nothing is left of them but the air-raid shelters that the Germans built everywhere in order to protect the people against air attacks. In these bunkers hundreds of thousands of people are now living. They are filled with an appalling stench. Each family — if one can still speak of families — is crammed together on a few square meters of concrete floor. There are no fires and there is no warmth, except the warmth of the other bodies all around.
Great injustice was done during the war and the occupation, but despite that, these outcasts remain our brothers and sisters. Christ wishes to live among them too, in his purity, his charity and his loving kindness. The shepherds came and worshiped Christ in a stable. But these people do not even have a stable. In their bunkers Christ cannot, humanly speaking, survive. There is no room for him there. This then — almost 3 years after the end of the war — is the need of Christ!
The world we live in is a crazy one. It is a world that for centuries has looked on heartless self-interest as the highest form of wisdom… and that has foundered again and again because of it. It is a world of wild beasts and violent men; a world where, in great things as in small, man has put his own ego before love. From Caesar to Napoleon, from Hitler to Stalin and the American atom bomb strategists, it has always been the same, and it will probably always remain that way. Caesar was murdered. Napoleon died in exile. Hitler shot himself, Mussolini was lynched… Who will be next? Violence and unbridled self-seeking lead irrevocably to disaster. We know this. We ourselves have witnessed it, and we are also suffering the consequences. And yet, as though blind and crazy, we still pursue the same path. The path of selfishness, in big things as in small. Right from the Yalta conferences and the “Big Five” in Potsdam, down to the small-time miserliness of the extortionate peasant farmer, through all the cowardly evils of our own sins, this world is dominated by selfishness.
The Holy Scriptures contain a tragic sentence: “He came to his own home and his own people received him not.” There was no room for him at the inn because “his own” were lacking in love. This is the dark root of all the wars and devastation. And we know that he is the Prince of Peace, whom the whole world yearns for; whom we so desperately need. So let us, in God’s name, restore love, and open our doors and hearts to him. For we humans belong together — all of us. And that includes the Germans and the communists. It includes the freezing and penniless wretches in their shelters. It includes the refugees and the uprooted. We must create room for one another and love one another. Not with fine phrases but with deeds, just like St Martin. He was on horseback when a poor beggar asked him for alms. But he had nothing left, so he took his coat and tore it in two, so that he could give half of it to the poor man. And this poor man was Christ himself. Everyone who is poor, in whatever sense of the word, is Christ. So give food parcels and clothing parcels for your brothers in Germany and do not exact the last pound of coal from them. Give a room in your home to the homeless. Save a place at your table for the hungry. And give your love and mercy to all; give your forgiveness and a friendly face.
St John wrote to the early Christians, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:16-18).
In so far as we have not done this, our hearts and our doors remain closed to Christ. That means that there is no room for him in our hearts! And all the Christmas cribs, the Christmas trees with their candlelight, their tinsel and their glittering stars, will never be enough to make up for this failing. So let us make peace with one another, in our hearts, amid the ruins of our enemy’s land. Let us forget the old hostilities. Let us reach out our hands to one another in gentleness and kindness. Let us restore love. For the tiny weeping Child in the manger is Immanuel, God-with-us. And God is Love.
Werenfried van Straaten