An Uncomfortable Advent
When we turned the corner and entered the grounds of the church, I immediately froze. My wife and I were on vacation, exploring a foreign city, excited to visit the grounds of a church that was over 1,000 years old. What caused me to freeze was not some gorgeous stained glass window, or the sheer weight of history before my eyes...
On a bench, about a hundred yards away, near the entrance of the church was a homeless man wrapped so tightly in a blanket it was hard to even tell that it was a person. Prior to what I do now, I worked in international development and have worked with homeless people before. I have experience working in these situations...I theoretically “know what to do”...yet my reaction was almost instinctual. I ran through what this situation might mean for me: “Is he going to ask me for something? We’re trying to have a vacation here I don’t really want to get involved…why he is sleeping right now in the middle of the day? If he approaches us we should just walk the other way...”
My wife didn’t say anything when she saw him, but I could tell she noticed, and was running through similar thoughts in her head. But we continued on without saying anything to each other.
As we approached the man, a smile started to form over my face. It’s just a statue! We both looked at each other realizing this at the same time and shared a knowing laugh - we both thought this was a real person! On another level, we were both laughing out of relief because we realized we were no longer faced with the awkward responsibility of responding to this man’s need.
But then my heart sank. Like Peter hearing the rooster call after he denied Jesus, I was faced with the depths of my weak faith. The statue, a man wrapped in a blanket lying on a bench, had pierced feet. This nameless homeless man was actually a statue of a homeless Jesus. It served it’s purpose. My wife and I stood silent when we both realized what had just happened.
I confessed to her my thoughts as we approached the statue, worrying about having to care for this person, feeling burdened by their condition...and I asked her this question: “If we had known this was Jesus the second we walked into the grounds of the church - wouldn’t we have run to help him?”
Emmanuel - God is with us. We often talk about this with us in comforting terms...which it is!...but we forget that Jesus inhabited an actual physical body...that people were not drawn to him without knowing who he was (Is. 53:2). We forget that those who find themselves outcasts in our society have more in common with how Jesus experienced the world, than those of us living with all means of worldly comfort and lavish excess.
I was challenged one Christmas, by a wise man I respect, who reflected on the meaning of Emmanuel. He described the nature of the Holy Spirit being active in each of our hearts while also calling us to the fundamental belief that we are made in the image of God. With these two truths, we possess something unique - we actually reflect in our image and in our rejuvenated spirit some aspect of Jesus. And because of this - to some degree - God being with us actually happens when we are with each other. When you love me with a Christ-like love, because you have the Holy Spirit and are an image bearer, I am experiencing God being with me through you.
This shook me to my non-charismatic core. I always thought about the nature of Jesus being in the world and that being the full representation of God’s communing with us - but I had never been faced with the fact that I share in that communion, and because of it, I am a part of Emmanuel being real.
As I grow in my faith, I arrogantly have less of a problem imagining myself as being a part of bringing Emmanuel to reality in other’s lives. What has challenged me more, and what struck me seeing this statue of a homeless Jesus, was how little I look for it in those around me.
I don’t want to admit that I need others to remind me that God is with me. I don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that many people who are close to Jesus cause me to feel uncomfortable. The advent is more than a story that reminds me of the real reason for the season - it is a daily reminder of a Kingdom I belong to that is much bigger than any of the ones I try to create for myself.
The advent reminds me that Jesus inhabits the parts of the world that I am not always comfortable approaching. I am reminded that he inhabits the parts of my heart that I am unwilling to explore. I am reminded that the way in which Jesus entered the world, is also the way in which he enters my life. It’s messy...it doesn’t always make the most sense...but if I am willing to follow him, I will also be entering the messy, confusing parts of life.
This advent - may we embrace a savior who is wrapped in a blanket on a park bench. And may we look for those around us who desperately need the comfort of Emmanuel - God with us...and may we also open our hearts to receiving this from one another.