As the apparent grimness, even meanness, of Christmas 1981 sinks in, we might turn to the familiar account of the first Christmas for insight and refuge from depressing news and holiday frenzy.

The infant in the manger grew up to tell us that our response to the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, those who are sick or in prison, is our response to Him. The 1981 equivalent of "no room at the inn" might be the harassment and deportation of Haitian and Central American refugees fleeing oppression. That lowly stable might be real shelter to the homeless men and women who seek warmth on the heating grates in our nation's capital. The angels' song of peace on earth seems quite distant as the arms race takes on new momentum and world leaders discuss the "winability" of limited nuclear war and the utility of a "demonstration nuclear explosion."

Fortunately, in our own community we can look to dozens of remarkable women and men who teach us year round what Christmas really means:

At 5th and G Streets NW, almost 50 homeless women find warm beds, an encouraging word and a touch of human dignity every night in a shelter staffed by the Sisters of Mt. Carmel with the help of dozens of volunteers, parishes and Catholic Charities.

A mile away, nearly 500 men and women each receive a hot meal every day, along with a little respect and concern at "So Others Might Eat" (SOME). This food for the hungry and the health, dental and counseling services that are also a part of SOME are made possible by more than 50 parishes and congregations.

On the other side of the Anacostia River, 10 Catholic parishes have joined with a number of Protestant congregations to speak for the needs and rights of the people of Southeast Washington. They are helping tenants to keep and restore their homes; they are seeking housing for senior citizens, forcing the city to improve conditions in D.C. Village and working to clean up neighborhoods and obtain decent city services.

Next Wednesday, Assumption Catholic Church will distribute food to nearly 500 families. Two weeks ago, hundreds of poor parents came to the church to select gifts for their children. Assumption is just one of the many churches that help poor families celebrate Christmas. Catholic Charities and other programs also provide important year-around assistance.

This year there is a special urgency that accompanies these and other charitable works. The devastating consequences of budget cuts and the desperation of the jobless threaten to overwhelm the resources of the religious community. The smug projections of future growth, the unexamined assurances of renewed private-sector giving, the empty proclamations of protection for the truly needy -- all are little help in the face of the real abandonment of the poor.

There is no way the churches or voluntary sector can be expected to fill the growing gap. This is why the Catholic bishops of the country have joined with other religious leaders to ask how budget decisions are affecting the least among us. This is why religious leaders are posing hard questions about the arms race and the meaning of defense in a nuclear age. It may seem a long way from that stable in Bethlehem to the lunchroom at SOME, or public advocacy for the poor, but Jesus' identification with the poor requires no less. If we wish to find the meaning of Christmas, we need to step away from the shopping malls and join the remarkable men and women who are welcoming the Lord's coming by serving and empowering the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the victims of injustice.