I’ve struggled with Christmas this year; it’s come too suddenly, with Advent being railroaded by a thousand and one other things that have been shouting louder than the carols. Something has been lost and it’s been difficult to catch a glimpse of Bethlehem on the horizon.
But in the midst of this, I’ve been helped by a piece of art by comic book artist Everett Patterson. The piece, entitled José y Maria, depicts Mary and Joseph as a young Hispanic couple stranded in the car park of a seedy motel, the merciless light of a No Vacancies sign impassively looking on behind them. Their star is neon, their halos are adverts and the words of the prophets are scrawled on the side of a pay phone.
It’s a fantastic piece, and one that’s become something of an icon for me. In contemplating the picture I can find a new way in to the story, especially when put together with Bruce Cockburn’s ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’. It reminds me that Mary and Joseph were real people, that they endured danger and difficulties, that the first Nativity took place in flesh and blood and wood and stone, not an alternative spiritual reality untouched by the world around it. I like to think that, just around the corner, there’s a drunk tank in which the characters from Fairytale of New York are singing to each other. I need the reminder that Christmas breaks through history and into our lives.
But we’ve got to make room for that. At his blog, Patterson points out that the perspective of the picture is designed to make us view the scene at some remove, as if we’re passing on the other side of the street, or driving past from the comfort of our car. We see José and Maria, stuck outside the motel in the pouring rain, but it’s none of our business. We keep on walking, driving; complicit with the dismissive innkeepers.
But then it’s easy to become estranged from the story, to forget that the incarnation didn’t just happen two thousand years ago in a Middle Eastern backwater, it’s an ongoing, present reality. God is still with us; Jesus is still Emmanuel. If Christmas isn’t any more than a historical commemoration then it has no more power than National Hamburger Day. But that’s not true, is it?
Because look at the picture again. Look at the feet of the characters, look amongst the beer cans and discarded newspapers and the graffiti that speaks of Word become Flesh. There’s a tiny shoot emerging from a crack in the pavement, new life sneaking past grey concrete. That shoot is alive with light and life and it’s growing in the heart of a scene that might otherwise appear without hope. The image has biblical resonance, but you don’t really need to know that to understand that the tiny shoot working its way out of the ground represents hope sprouting in the despair of life, hope breaking through even when there’s no room at the inn.
It’s been a rough year, a year marked by loss and pain and the world seemingly shifting and mutating into forms and happenings that we don’t yet understand. The stable in Bethlehem can feel long ago and far away. I’ve wanted to go there but the nights have been so cloudy that I can’t see the star.
But we don’t need to go to Bethlehem, because God is with us here and now; he stands with the homeless couple in the parking lot, he feels the cold of the rain, he’s experienced our worry, our stress, our despair. He knows all this because he’s been there and done that, and because of that he turns to us and says “do not be afraid”. And that statement wasn’t easily won: it comes from being laid in a feeding trough as a new-born and then, thirty years later, being nailed to rough-hewn wood.
So this year, José y Maria remind me that it’s not about the memory of Christmas, it’s about the immediacy of it. It’s about trusting, not in history, but in the present, in relationship. And that trust may not be bigger that a tiny shoot sneaking into a big bad world, but it still needs nurturing, still needs protecting as our hopes and fears intersect on the story of Christmas and the God who was born in Bethlehem, who lives with us today.