In the United States, it is typical to rent a room temporarily while traveling. Mary and Joseph were not looking for a room for the weekend, as we are accustomed to doing around the holidays. They were looking for temporary lodging, to fulfill whatever obligations of the census and to be ready in case Mary went into labor. In a town that would have been filled with Joseph’s kin, none were willing to make room for him and his pregnant fiancee. Think less about a “No Vacancy” neon sign and more of being told that there are no guest rooms, no rollaways, no couches, no air mattresses, no floors that you are welcome to. “That girl” is not welcome in our town.
Illustrator Everett Patterson has an image that strikes this chord in scene preceding the nativity we are accustomed to decorating our homes, lawns, and churches.
In his commentary on the piece, he writes,
I have a small hope that this Christmas image will come to mind when we see other “down and out” people huddling outside of gas stations, reminding us that our Savior’s parents (and indeed, Jesus himself) were at one time similarly troubled. (Full article)
In a similar spirit, in Mark Sadlin’s post, 10 Things Christians Shouldn’t Do at Christmas, he lists that forgetting (ignoring, really) those who are hungry, those who lack shelter, or those who are immigrants misses the import of the one whom we are celebrating. The one who would begin his public ministry by quoting Isaiah in Luke 4,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
During this season, we acknowledge that when God shows up (immanuel), it is among the marginalized and powerless. It is in the shadows of society that we sanitize or segregate. It is in situations so bleak that the only hope of redemption is the messiah. If the good news we proclaim is not good to the poor, it is not the good news.
This holiday season, we remember that this is the story of our leader’s birth. In the midst of all of the distractions that tempt us away from these scandalous claims on our faith, we have in our journey of discipleship the call to be present with those who, like the holy family, had no one to care for them in their moment of crisis. For those who do not enjoy the comfort of home. For the victims of abuse and rampant individualism, those who have the violence of war etched upon their minds and bodies, communities calling for the right to breathe, refugees of an upper-class economy, and all those who feel powerless to live free.
It is in these situations– not the bright lights, cash registers, or posed pictures– that a deep understanding of the significance of the Advent and Incarnation is cultivated. We are present with these communities because it is here that we will find Christ, anew.
Michael Shepherd is the editor of Global Theology and a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University. He lives and works in Fullerton, CA, USA.