One Christmas, Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz was on a busy street in Toronto. The city was bursting with holiday spirit, everyone bustling around in their shopping and partygoing.
Something caught Timothy’s eye, and it wasn’t a Christmas display. It was a homeless person wrapped in a sleeping bag, lying asleep on the corner of the street.
Timothy said he couldn’t tell if it were a man or a woman, and yet he had a moment of instant recognition. Surrounded by a swirl of people caught up in the season of celebrating Christ’s birth, Timothy saw this huddled mass and thought—“That is Jesus.”
This experience inspired him to create several bronze sculptures of Jesus, but not in the traditional representations we see of Christ in glory. One of Timothy’s works depicts Jesus asleep on a park bench, wrapped in a blanket, identifiable only by the scars on his exposed, bare feet. Another shows a similar figure sitting, hunched over, one hand extended, a hole in the palm.
Just this past week, one of the statues was stolen—and then returned a week later with a sorry note. Only in Canada.
Timothy knows that his work is provocative, and some even find it offensive. Critics say that only more traditional images of Jesus should be acceptable. They say it is disrespectful to represent Jesus this way.
This is pretty offensive to homeless people, but I’m sure many of us would have a visceral reaction to Timothy’s work, and we might not like it.
There is a disconnect between our usual image of Jesus and the message of Advent and Christmas. At Christmas, we like to see the fresh-faced baby Jesus in the manger, haloed and cooing while Mary and Joseph glow with parental joy.
It is right to see the profound beauty of the nativity scene, but let’s not forget the real story. Mary and Joseph were far from home. They had been turned away from an inn where there was no room for them. They were sleeping in a barn—can you imagine what it smelled like?
Mary, you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains
Remember that Mary was young—14 at the most. She was barefoot and pregnant, staring down the risks of childbirth in the ancient near east, supported by a man who stayed with her only because an angel had told him to.
And yet, she sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Mary is vulnerable. When she sings to God about her lowliness, she is not spiritualizing this category. Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says this: “‘Lowliness’ is not simply a mental attitude (‘humility’) but an objective condition: like those enumerated in her song, Mary occupied a position of poverty and powerlessness in her society.”
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Last week, a remarkable rumor came out of Rome. A Vatican official hinted that Pope Francis has been sneaking out at night. Now, before you imagine His Holiness as a teenager climbing out of the window of his parents’ house, we aren’t talking about him going off to drink with his buddies or crash a party. The speculation is that the Pope has been sneaking out at night to give alms to the poor.
Here at Centenary, as at many churches, there has been a debate going on about how to observe Advent—or really, whether to observe it. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas, and it is a season of expectation. In the church calendar, the Christmas season actually starts on December 25, not on December 1 or November 1 or whatever ungodly date the mall has decided on this year.
Sometimes us pastors can come off as Scrooges when we invite our churches to observe Advent, because we ask people to save “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” until Christmas Eve. It’s a difficult tension to navigate—this is the time of year when people who have been away come back to church. People want to sing the carols of the season, and we should do so—Mary sang to the Lord before Jesus was born, after all.
But for me personally—for me spiritually—it has been painful to feel like we have lost Advent. Because in Advent, I believe, we find the true meaning of Christmas. The lords can leap and the ladies can dance and the maids can milk and those swans can keep right on swimming, but there are still people walking in darkness who need to see a great light. Israel is still captive and in need of ransom. Jesus is still very much long-expected. The powerful are getting Christmas bonuses while lowly are asleep on park benches, the hungry are emptier than ever and the rich are very, very full. And right in the middle of the mess, a child is born.
When Mary sings the Magnificat, she identifies herself with the lowly, the oppressed, the poor. There was no room for her and Joseph. There was no room for Jesus. Is there room for him today?
Thomas Merton, a great Catholic mystic and writer—who, by the way, died 45 years ago yesterday--said this about the birth of Jesus:
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst… It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.”
In the lowly, the hungry, the ones for whom there is no room—this is where we find Christ at Christmas. If Pope Francis is really sneaking out at night to give to the poor, I would argue that he is not doing so in order to be Christ—he is doing so in order to meet Christ.
Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest School of Divinity, said in a recent article that the Blessed Virgin Mary scares him. She makes him think twice about going to the mall to do his Christmas shopping, because she makes him aware of the injustices in our world and of all the ways his life does not align with the vision of God’s kingdom.
And yet, Leonard is grateful for this fear he experiences when confronted with a teenage girl. He says this: “In a country where one of five children goes hungry every day, we’ve got our work cut out for us ‘filling the hungry with good things.’ If Mother Mary is right, we won’t have peaceful hearts until we do. Scary, thank God.”
The last hymn we’ll sing tonight is an Advent hymn that I love. The first verse goes like this:
People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
I am very excited that this is the first year I have a full-sized Christmas tree. It has lights and ornaments and everything. There are stockings above my fireplace, a Moravian star in the window, and various other seasonal decorations popping up around my house.
But I like to sing that verse of “People, Look East” metaphorically as well as literally. When we decorate our homes, we are usually preparing for guests—for holiday parties, for family coming to town, for Santa.
But Advent isn’t just for preparing our homes—it’s for preparing our hearts. Heck, there’s even a Christmas hymn about that—“Let every heart prepare him room.
How are you making room for Jesus in your homes and in your hearts this year?
On the first Sunday of Advent, I joined dozens of pastors and church members from many different congregations across the street at the Loaves and Fishes community ministries building. There, we sang, read Scripture, reflected, and shared. We walking down Fifth Street to First Baptist Church, then back around to Augsburg Lutheran Church, doing the same at each spot. We ended our circuit of prayer and blessing back at Loaves and Fishes, where we broke bread together—turkey sandwiches in paper lunch sacks, to be exact.
What was this all about? This was a service of blessing for the downtown overflow homeless shelter. On December 1, the first Sunday of Advent, First Baptist and Augsburg Lutheran opened their doors to men and women for whom there is no room on these cold nights. Every night from now until March 31, a little room will be made for Jesus in the form of the lowly and the hungry of Winston-Salem.
You can be a part of that. We need volunteers to help with check-in, to provide meals, to stay overnight, and more. You can meet Jesus in the gym at First Baptist as surely as you can meet him at the manger.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell