Halfway through December of 2020, in the depths of the now infamous Covid-19 pandemic; pre-vaccine, and post the somber shrouds of Thanksgiving in isolation, social media community boards flooded with requests for help: food, clothes, shelter, blankets, medicine, and gifts. While certain temporary financial protections had temporarily sheltered the housed working, but essential poor, those already living on the very edge of the margins– in parks and doorways; pitching tents on cemetery lawns and along bike paths, in greenspaces near convenience stores and empty parking lots where churches used to serve hot meals and hand out blankets and fuel and batteries– were somehow pushed back to somewhere far beyond the arbitrary line that determines the recognition of one’s humanity and dignity and right to be included in mainstream society.
There was a young woman, a young man, and a toddler (tucked somewhere in blankets on the floor of a tent pitched in a patch of green space along a busy thoroughfare in the dark). The unforgiving winds of a Pacific Northwest winter shivered through our bodies as we stood in the yellow light that washed over us and the black asphalt underneath our feet.The exhausted mother and the uncertain father figure clad in the inadequate layers of the transient, along with the unseen child, presumably still sleeping– obscurely protected by a faithful menagerie of street dogs and cats against thieves and cold and rats– subversively challenged every depiction of the nativity I had ever witnessed: The figures standing in front of me were too young to have had to carry so much. They were so tired. God forgive me, I hadn’t realized. The characters of the Advent story had never been embodied in this way before.
Unseen. Unkept. Exhausted and Unsheltered.
For many of us, the Christmas Story is one of gentle comfort and hope. Emmanuel, God with us. Mystery revealed in the embraceable softness of a newborn baby. The majestic choir of angelic armies articulated through the humble articulations of shepherds. The stable is warm, the straw is clean, lanterns and starlight cast a soft, but sufficient glow across the happy parents.
It is the story our hearts ache for: Peace at the end of a long journey. Fulfillment after difficult travail. Joy after pain. Wonder after the monotony of the ordinary. Safety and security after displacement and threat. Deep in the soul of every human being is the unquenchable longing to come home to the place where “everything wrong has been made right” (Harper) and where all the good things are… To the place where we know instinctively that we belong.
Why else would the Divine Mystery enter the world through a young refugee woman in a barn– literally pushed to the margins of the city?
Unwitnessed? Unrecognized? Ignored and Unknown?
These are not words that we typically ascribe to the slumbering and adored Prince of Peace, but they do describe the reality of the moment for the exhausted mother, the uncertain father figure, and the child, protected as well as they could– kept warm by the heat of the animals.
Before the shepherds and their stories of angels, before the star, and the wisemen, and the gifts– there was the desperate urgency of the night– and no room. The author of John’s gospel in the Christian Scriptures says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®).
We who are used to the lights and pageantry of the Season may find it difficult to see beyond them– even with intention, to gaze into the places that have long been overlooked, unseen, and ignored– to the literal and figurative margins where both deepest longing and greatest Hope abides. Yet, it is what we must do if we are to finally come home.
By Naphtali Renshaw
Harper, Lisa Sharon. The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right . Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2016.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Biblica, Inc., 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011.