I never knew what became of them. Every year scores of people come to our church seeking help in responding to needs of body, mind, and spirit. And we always tried to respond with grace and generosity.
But this couple was unique. It was two days before Christmas, and they showed up in a battered car that they had been sleeping in since being evicted from their apartment the week before. They had a history, involving drugs and alcohol, like so many who come for help. They were trying to chart a new life. But the past doesn’t matter when a person’s in need.
They were Joseph and Dora, and they were unmarried, and Dora was pregnant. As they told their story, confessing the sins of past and expressing hopes for the future to me, I thought of another couple looking for shelter, whose child had also been conceived out of wedlock.
We found them a motel room, pointed them to sources of long-term aid, and then they left our lives. I still wonder what happened to them, with a baby now nearly five years old.
The parallels were obvious that Christmas. Like an earlier Mary and Joseph, or immigrants shivering on the USA border this Christmas Eve, their relationship was no Hallmark Movie, with no clear happily ever after outcome in sight.
Two thousand years ago, another couple looked for shelter. They were going through tough times, too. They didn’t want to be on the road with the baby due. But they had no choice: they were living in an occupied land, and they had to pay their taxes to the Romans who controlled their every move. It was taxation without representation, but they had no power, and to the casual observer they were just another poor family with another mouth to feed, looking for a place to stay.
We know the Christmas stories, but they are more than meets the eye. I love the angelic visitation to Mary. I treasure the accounts of Joseph’s dream, the announcement of the birth to shepherds, and the coming of the Magi. That’s the enchantment of Christmas, and yet the shepherds were minimum wage employees, with no social standing, and looked down upon by their neighbors, and the Magi came from another religion, that of Zoroaster, and today would be Iranians. Despite their wealth and education, they didn’t belong in the circle of revelation either.
Then, like countless persons throughout the ages and this evening across the globe, even Christmas Eve in El Paso,Mary and Joseph had to flee for their lives, political refugees traveling a thousand miles, seeking a home in a strange land, Egypt, where they weren’t really wanted and probably viewed as nuisances and drains on society.
The story of Jesus’ birth is as familiar as today’s cable news, and yet, we hear the radical word that awakens us to enchantment, wonder, and perhaps a new heart. The word was made flesh and dwelled among us. God Incarnate in a baby, humbly born, to desperate parents. Fully human and fully divine, bearing the energy of the big bang and the fourteen-billion-year cosmic journey, the Wisdom of God embodied in the most commonplace reality, God’s birth among the ordinary and forgotten.
The Celtic saint, Pelagius, affirmed that every newborn bears the face of God, and that is the enchantment of Christmas. That little baby reminds us that Scrooge can be transformed, angels receive wings every time a bell rings, and that it truly is a wonderful life. It is the message of God incarnate sent to heal our world and the reality that traces of divinity are found everywhere: holy births at Cape Cod Hospital, God’s beloved children at Hy-West School, and a glimpse of divinity born in a pilgrim family on our borderlands or among Syrian or Kurdish refugees.
In this birth, the Infinite and intimate and personal and political are joined, in God’s call for us to open our senses, discover our calling, and share in God’s vision of healing the earth.
Ordinary life is chockful of miracles, and we are part of that miracle too. Most passersby missed the Holy Birth, the angelic chorus and the star in the sky. But, for those who listen and look, Christ is born: in us, in the one next to us, in that houseless child, and in the pilgrim from Central America. That is the miracle of Christmas, to open your heart and see God in the most unexpected places and people.
There is a miracle on 34th Street and at our mailing address and how wonderful life will be if we let Christ be born in us today. If we midwife the Christ child in our time and place. As the Christmas carol says, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in you today.” Here today two thousand years later, in troubled and uncertain America, we join with magi and shepherds everywhere, and couples waiting for a birth in warm hospitals and dank hovels, to pray for guidance and as we seek to nurture God’s hope within us.
“O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend on us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.
O come to us
Abide with us
Our God Emmanuel.”
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, and FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION. His latest books are THE PROPHETIC AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA and REPAIRING THE WORLD: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH FRANCIS AND CLARE OF ASSISI. He is also the author of the “12 Days of Christmas Books” – Celtic Christianity, Howard Thurman, Madeleine L’Engle, and Francis and Clare, from Anamchara Books. He can be reached for seminars and talks at firstname.lastname@example.org.