The Road to Bethlehem
Not all roads lead to Bethlehem. I-85 west of Charlotte is snarled at the McAdenville exit- “Christmas Town USA,”- a drive-thru of ornately decorated homes. Off McDowell Street, tourists pay one hundred and twenty-five dollars to see the forty-five thousand twinkling lights inside the Biltmore House. On Balm Grove Avenue in East Asheville, North Carolina’s longest-running live nativity scene is on display. But the baby Jesus won’t be found in any of those places.
His parents were on foot, forced to walk the eighty miles from Nazareth. Joseph kept checking his wallet for tax money he didn’t have. Mary kept checking her underdress, anxious her water was breaking too early. They traveled the slow miles over ten days through the Jordan River Valley and past the Bedouin camps, north to south, hauling their provisions as they counted the contractions.
While the holy family eventually made it to Bethlehem, we are just starting the journey of Advent. Over the next four weeks, the distractions will only intensify, the glossy ads and blinking signs pointing us in every wrong direction. And when we lose our way, turned around by culture and consumerism, let us return to today’s text asking this question: how do we get to Christmas by the end of December?
Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Through unceasing prayer, God’s gift to quiet to voices of distraction.
By going through the Gaza Strip where 60,000 pregnant women will give birth during the bombardment.
The road intersects Empire as Rome tries to over tax the poor.
The stigmata, or open nail wounds from the crucifixion, are all you can see of his body. He’s lying in the fetal position on a city park bench, covered by a single blanket, face shrouded, shivering on a frigid night. The bronze piece of art is entitled “Jesus the Homeless.” Timothy Schmalz is the figurative sculptor, a devout Catholic who believes his work is a visual translation of the Bible. After its completion, Schmalz offered the first casting to St. Michael’s in Toronto and then to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Both declined. The piece was finally commissioned in the United States by an Episcopal congregation in upscale Davidson, NC. After installing it on the church grounds, a concerned woman called the paramedics to resuscitate Jesus, a fearful man called the police to arrest Jesus, and an angry neighbor sneered that it disgraced their community. Most of all, people said, the sculpture was sacrilegious, an insulting depiction of God.1
Unlike his Gospel counterparts who surround the virgin birth with finery and opulence, Luke goes out of his way to locate in the dregs of society. There are no royal visitors checking into the penthouse suite but instead crooked soldiers placing their bets and defiled Johns picking out their girls; no gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold, but census forms to sign and levies to pay; no supernova star high in the East but a smoldering barrel fire out back; no gilded crib but a splintered feeding trough.
Of all the ways to abandon heaven for earth, God is born into the human condition as a homeless infant. On the incarnation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “[Jesus] comes in the form of a beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help.”2 Lined with tents on the sidewalks, commandeered shopping carts in the median, no trespassing signs posted on the telephone poles, and piles of plundered trash on the curb, the only road that leads to Bethlehem is the road of poverty.
Walking across the broken asphalt, laboring with each step over the next month, we may choose to detour into warm sentimentalism or even disappear into magic escapism. Fine, many of us could use a made-for-television Hallmark moment. But let’s not confuse that with Christianity. If who you seek is the Christ child- Emmanuel, God with us in the destitution- then the way is clear.
Off the main drag, between the tire shops, Joseph is inside AHOPE. He’s waiting in line for a shower and eavesdropping on any conversation that might lead to day labor. Mary takes another drag off her last cigarette, trying to blunt the street. She’s worried about the letter from DSS, wondering how many salvaged diapers can fit into her container downstairs, praying the angel didn’t lie.
As she leans against the graffitied picnic table, one hand supporting her aching back, the other stroking her swollen womb, the mother of our Lord knows it won’t be much longer. To join her for the birth, we better start heading toward 19 North Ann Street.