I have walked the downtown streets of Toronto enough to know a homeless or street person when I see one. The tell-tale clue is to see where they sleep. Someone who is homeless often sleep in places that aren’t designed to be beds, e.g. by the front doorsteps, between two newspaper vending machines, on a park bench, etc. The baby Jesus, as so many Nativity scenes remind us, ends up sleeping in a manger, an open box in the barn where the livestock eat out of. It is, for me, a symbol of homelessness.
It is a sign of the romanticization of Christmas or its commercialization or both that so many of us do not see the sight of a newborn baby sleeping in a feeding trough as strange. We have so domesticated this image that for most Christians, it suggests the supernatural rather than the unnatural. A baby in a manger is as unnatural as an orphan in the streets. Neither should happen. Yet, they did, and do, and will happen still.
Stories of supernatural births abound in the first century Greco-Roman world for persons (like emperors) with claims to divinity or supernatural power. Even stories of virgin births. But what is intriguing is why would the birth story of Jesus, as the Messiah and the Son of God, be associated with such lowly, humbling, even a tad insulting, conditions? True, Matthew’s gospel account had the illustrious wise men or kings from the east coming to give homage. But if we follow Luke’s gospel, we see a very different picture. It was Luke that paints the story of Mary and Joseph being forced to travel away from the comforts and security of home in Nazareth to Bethlehem many miles to the south due to the whims and fancies of empire (a census decreed by Caesar Augustus). It was Luke that gives us the famous story that there were no guest rooms left available for our young couple. (Luke 2)
Hence, the story of Mary and Joseph having to make do with sleeping in the animal’s quarters and baby Jesus lying in a manger is a story of displacement and homelessness. A symbol of vulnerability and weakness. Not of strength and power. A very strange, unnatural, symbol indeed for someone claiming to be the Son of God.
To add salt to injury, Luke did not have kings bearing expensive gifts to visit the baby but lowly shepherds bearing nothing but their smelly selves. Christians have also romaticized the first century shepherd. Shepherds back then were often looked down upon as a class. Shepherding sheep may be an important job – sheep provide wool, meat as well as temple sacrifice – but it was also a thankless job. No one aspires to be a shepherd, if they can help it. It required long hours outdoors, among smelly sheep whose odour clings to you, isolation from mainstream society because of your work location with sheep grazing outdoors away from cities and towns, even sleeping outdoors at night (the angel came to the shepherds who keeping watch over the flocks by night, remember?). It’s normally the kind of job that people who probably can’t do much else better end up with. Shepherds were NOT the brightest and the best of society. Far from it. The closest contemporary equivalent I can think of are garbage collectors! No offense to garbage collectors but nobody goes to college to aspire to be one, if you get my drift.
So, smelly shepherds end up being the first visitors of a displaced homeless young couple finding shelter in a barn with the newborn Savior of the world – a helpless baby – sleeping in a feeding box. Luke painted a picture that was as far away from royalty, power, might and empire as you can get. If I want to give this image a contemporary twist, I would have Mary and Joseph in a dirty garage and baby Jesus lying in an emptied tool box. And the visitors in the unholy hour of twilight were garbage collectors. Not exactly a scene that makes you warm and cozy is it?
But that’s the point. The Christmas story is not meant to make us feel warm fuzzy feelings. It is a story that is meant to change us. Here is a God who is not immune to the sufferings and wrongs of the world. The very opposite. Here is a “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), a God who knows intimately the world’s displacement, homelessness, marginalization, oppression, isolation and suffering. Here is a God who leaves the comfort and safety of heaven and who leaves power and might behind for the vulnerability of a helpless newborn in a manger. Here is a God who is willing to go such enormous lengths in order to sow the seeds of change, to begin the process of righting the wrongs of the world, “to proclaim good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Here is a God who is willing to do whatever it takes to bring salvation to the world, even death on a cross.
I am not sure if I had done all that is in my power to join in God’s mission of saving the world. How many of us can honestly say that we have? How many of us are willing and ready to abandon our comfort zones to identify with the oppressed and bring about change? I have great respect and admiration for those who have, at great cost to themselves, committed to bringing positive change in the lives of others – both the famous ones like Mother Theresa and the not so famous ones that toil in anonymity. These people and the image of God in a feeding box should propel us to become better persons. The nativity scene should remind us to pray, to give, and to advocate for the less fortunate. It should also remind us to see the dignity and honor of the shepherds or garbage collectors of the world. This image of a homeless God/Jesus should motivate us to be more human, to be more like what God intended us to be.