The Rev. Peter Faass
It’s amazing how our familiarity (or overexposure) with something can make us less aware of it. This overfamiliarity can cause it to lose meaning. Christmas falls into that category.
We get overexposed to the secular part of Christmas with its emphasis on commercialism and partying. To limit that relentless bombardment of the season, we put up filters to keep ourselves from being physically, mentally and spiritually overwhelmed. When the real meaning of Christmas arrives at our door on Christmas Eve, we don’t recognize it. We might look at it and reply, “Sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”
There’s a lovely framed watercolor in our parish office that captures how this happens. I didn’t pay attention to this print, which I’ve passed thousands of times, until we repainted the office. The title of the print is “The Holy Family Enters Cleveland.” The Plain Dealer wrote an article about the print, painted by the Rev. Ralph Fotia, a local Methodist minister, in 1986.
The print’s delicate strokes evoke Asian art to me. The Cleveland skyline with the Terminal Tower and the Standard Oil buildings are in the distance. The onion domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral are to the right. A snow-covered field lies before them, with a small tree standing to the left. Joseph trudges through the snow in the foreground, leading a donkey that is carrying Mary as she holds her baby Jesus. The Holy Family appears to have an abstract halo over their heads.
Inside, the card reads:
Overbooked inns in Bethlehem
A waiting family out in the cold
Still wandering through our cities
Looking for the room.
Plain Dealer writer Darrell Holland stated that (the depiction and the message) “suggests the needs of the Holy Family at Jesus’ birth are reflected in the lives of many Greater Clevelanders.”
In the scripture, the Holy Family experienced hardship twice in the Nativity story:
- When Mary and Joseph traveled 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem while Mary was pregnant.
- When Mary and Joseph fled Bethlehem for Egypt in the wake of King Herod’s genocide of all male babies two years or younger (Herod’s effort to get rid of an infant Jesus whom he perceived as threat to his throne).
Rev. Fotia was an urban minister, pastoring to many Clevelanders with circumstances similar to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. His painting is a theologically powerful tableau, reminding us that many others, like the Holy Family, need relief from the world’s oppressive ways.
Fotia noted, “People like the Holy Family continue to seek shelter and food and to have trouble finding them. There are still overbooked inns like in Bethlehem. Jobs are not available and people suffer.”
This powerful print breaks into the overfamiliarity with Christmas. It reminds us of the original Christmas story’s scandal. This season’s relentless bombardment should not prevent us from seeing the Nativity’s true meaning and the message it yearns to deliver.
God came into human history as a helpless, newborn baby. He was laid in a feeding trough in a cave with livestock. He was born to a young unwed couple. God was born on the road. A Super 8 Motel would be luxurious in comparison. Those who initially visited him were shepherds, those on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Everything about Jesus’ birth is antithetical to what we would expect for a kingly birth, never mind a deity’s. However, everything about this birth is a profound statement about God and, as the angels proclaimed that holy night, “those whom God favors.”
By entering history in this manner, we understand this is a new kind of King. This isn’t a Caesar living decadently in an imperial capital, ruling by intimidation brute force and fear. God help us if Caesar had gotten his hands on a cellphone with a Twitter account! Instead, Jesus’ birth is about a king, partial to the most disadvantaged, who wanted humanity’s redemption and wellness. As the angel announced to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
In this king, there is hope for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the persecuted, the immigrant, the Muslim, the African –American, the ill, LGBTQ people, sexually-abused women, hungry children, those without health insurance and everyone who would be considered the least among us. This includes everyone wandering in the cold and snow, in a hostile world seeking a place of compassion and hospitality, in Cleveland, throughout the nation and the world. These are all members of the Holy Family. God specifically chose derided people like these to initially proclaim the good news. This is why they respond with gratitude and great joy!
Jesus’ birth shows that God has not forgotten anyone. With Jesus’ birth, the good news proclaimed that God didn’t abandon us to the brokenness and sin-sick world. In brokenness of our own dark times, the hope of that truth is the light that shines brightly from the stable of Bethlehem. The baby Jesus light calls us to be bearers of that light, to bring it to those whom Rev. Fotia stated are “Still [are]wandering through our cities, looking for the room.”
The Rev. Pat Hanen wrote this advent meditation:
“The power of God to know the truth and do right is eternal and incontrovertible. But if we follow Jesus, we have to bear the pain of using that power in this world. We have to stand up, suffering the pain of gravity. We have to do right, acknowledging our own sin, repenting from it, and changing. We have to exercise compassion, risking ourselves, recognizing that the destiny of a candle is to be consumed in giving light.”
In the newborn Jesus, God has not forgotten us. Let us not forget those he came to serve.
Let us welcome those Holy Families who wander the cold, desolate places seeking warmth, welcome, compassion and dignity. By so doing we will be glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.
Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to all God’s people.