More than a theory scratched out on paper with pencil, more than an idea argued and articulated around a living room with whiskey in hand, or at a bar with a pint of I.P.A., followers of Christ believe that Christmas celebrates the mystery that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Or, as Eugene Peterson so delightfully translated it in the Message, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” This great truth lights the darkness of the long winter nights at this time of year in the neighborhoods of the north. This great truth resounds through the music and laughter and ringing of bells celebrating that Holy Day centuries ago.
Yet this Christmas, I feel called to know, and acknowledge, the presence of Christ differently.
As I studied the scripture above a few weeks ago, preparing for a sermon, instead of the “fleshiness” of it all, a different image filled my thoughts. In the ancient languages providing the foundation for John’s proclamation, when God came to dwell among us, God more literally “pitched a tent among us.” For the original covenant people of God, the Israelites, this image would have brought a wealth of significant memories. After God led the Hebrew people out of slavery at the hands of the Pharaoh in Egypt, as they began wandering in the desert, God instructed Moses to build a tent for God’s presence within the camp. At each stop, the tent would be set up and God would reside there, in the tent, among the people. When God’s people set out again, the tent would be broken down and carried along with the caravan. In his gospel, John proclaims, God has again “pitched a tent” among the people, in the flesh of the child Jesus, born to Mary in Bethlehem.
This Christmas, I find myself wondering, if this were to happen all over again, on this planet, now, in this day, where would God pitch a tent?
Honestly, I don’t believe it would be in my own neighborhood, at least not in a house. God didn’t show up in any of the places with wealth or power. In Jesus, God pitched a tent far from the seat of the empire in Rome. Jesus didn’t even show up in the dynamic center of the Jewish faith, Jerusalem. God pitched a tent along the outskirts, among the unimportant and overlooked. Jesus didn’t live in a mansion or among the rich. He worked and taught and ate and slept among the marginalized, the “street people” of his day. If God were to pitch a tent among us today, I think it would more likely be in a grubby nylon second-hand pod under a blue tarp among all the worn-out, broken, fetid detritus of our homeless, our addicted, our brain-sick brothers and sisters on the sidewalks of our city. God in a tent.
I am very aware that the forces at work in our society that have led to such drastic caverns between those with and those without are many and complex. I readily acknowledge that they are beyond my ability to diagnose or critique, especially in such a small blog post as this. I sketch an image of Jesus under a greasy sleeping bag on a bed of cardboard not to sentimentalize those in tent encampments nor to demonize those sleeping under warm, dry covers. Rather, when God got wrapped up in flesh and bone and tissue, I believe God revealed that all human beings are worthy of respect and care. But, when the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, the choice of neighborhood also mattered. This Christmas I want to know “Why?” and “How?”
On the edge Christmas sets the centre on the edge; The edge of town, out-buildings of an inn, The fringe of empire, far from privilege And power, on the edge and outer spin Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars That edge a galaxy itself light years From some unguessed-at cosmic origin. Christmas sets the centre at the edge. And from this day our world is re-aligned; A tiny seed unfolding in the womb Becomes the source from which we all unfold And flower into being. We are healed, The End begins, the tomb becomes a womb, For now in him all things are re-aligned. Malcom Guite