Christmas may be several weeks away, but there are Christmas-y things all over. There are pictures of lighted houses in the snow, decorated trees, reindeer, and some guy dressed in a red suit and hat. There are even images of fully-staffed manger scenes, although Mary and Joseph would not yet be in Bethlehem even if they had started on that journey by now. It is all in the spirit of getting ready for a special day in the Christian faith, although snowmen, reindeer, and the red-suited dude aren’t part of the true story of Christmas.
I see images of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to pay the taxes required of them. Mary is riding on a donkey because she is heavily pregnant. Joseph holds the donkey’s halter to ensure the animal doesn’t stumble or jostle its precious cargo too severely. It’s been drawn, painted, sculpted, and carved probably a hundred thousand ways, but it all brings the same message – the Savior is coming. It’s a message we, along with our ancestors and our successors, need to be reminded of year after year.
One thing I notice this year is the increasing number of images showing modern-day Josephs and Marys, some pregnant, some with small children. Several years ago, one of the first such images I saw was a painting of a pair of young homeless people in front of a bodega in what appeared to be a tough neighborhood. The female was pregnant, and both of them were dressed in shirts, tattered jeans, and thin jackets. In the background, there was a sign saying “Motel,” but the boy and girl appeared too poor to take advantage of it for shelter. It was the first time I’d really seen or thought of the journey to Bethlehem in terms of immigrants, homeless people, or even people other than the Middle Eastern Jewish couple I’d been raised to identify with on the journey to Bethlehem.
Since seeing that image, I’ve seen other representations showing people of different races, cultures, and ethnicities. They all represented poor people, marginalized, forced to travel without the benefit of modern transportation, prepared accommodations, and anything a credit card would cover. They were people taken out of the context of their everyday lives. They were put in situations they were unequipped to handle. Like Mary and Joseph, they needed shelter and a safe place for a baby to be born. To the homeless and the undocumented, it is a lot to ask for.
Our Education for Ministry (EfM) seminar group is reading a book called, Reading the Bible from the Margins, by Miguel A. De La Torre. The main point is that the Bible was written for cultures other than the Eurocentric, Caucasian, middle- and upper-classes. The message of Jesus was given not to just one group, the Jewish nation, but to Samaritans, Romans, and Greeks, and it spread outward from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean area and beyond. We live in a much wider world with many different eyes reading the same texts. We have to learn to read the Bible through different lenses of other cultures and groups who have different experiences from our own.
It is a shock to hear such a message since most of us have learned to read the Bible one way, from a patriarchal, Caucasian, Christian point of view. Like the new images of alternative holy families and journeys to Bethlehem, it is something we must learn to do even to begin to recreate the Kingdom of God on earth as Jesus told us to do. Granted, even Jesus tried to see things one way when a Syrophoenician woman approached him to help her daughter (Mark 7:25-30). Jesus told her that he had come for the Jews, and her reply was simple. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs (v. 28).” Jesus acknowledged the truth of the statement, and the woman’s daughter was healed. A shift in viewpoint was all it took. Jesus looked at the situation through new lenses.
Granted, it takes effort to learn to do what Jesus did, namely, look at things differently. It involves things such as actually seeing the homeless on the street, not just passing by and ignoring them as if they did not exist. It is reading the Bible through the eyes of the impoverished, marginalized, and the stranger, those with little or no power or voice in a culture that ignores their existence. It requires putting oneself in a different box than a comfortable one. It is reading the hope in the message, not the self-congratulation or reading the words and ignoring their meaning.
Sometimes we must be pushed to get out of our comfort zones and try something new or learn something different. We still have nativity stories happening around us, even if the result isn’t the coming of the Savior of the world. That happened once, and should be enough. We have the plan laid out for us if we just open our eyes and recognize it. Maybe this Advent, we should look for Marys and Josephs, Marias and Josés, Mariias and Yosips, and all the others who seek shelter, safety, and a place where they can be part of a community of equals. Jesus would appreciate that. It would be a birthday gift greater than the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that came at Epiphany.
Linda Ryan is a mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, a Baroque and Renaissance music lover, and a fumbling knitter. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her cat, Phoebe, near Phoenix.