I never knew what became of them. Every year scores of people come to our church in need of help in responding to needs of body, mind, and spirit. And we try 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, like so many who come for help. 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, 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 two years old.
The parallels were obvious that Christmas. Like an earlier Mary and Joseph, their relationship was no Hallmark Movie, with no clear happy 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 Roman oppressor. 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.
Then, like countless persons, 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 thugs, lowlifes, 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 homeless baby and a political refugee family. 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 humblest and 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.
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.
There is a miracle on 34th Street and how wonderful life will be if we let Christ be born in us today. As the Christmas carol says, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in you today.” Here today in 21st century, troubled America, and so perhaps with magi and shepherds everywhere, and couples waiting for a birth in warm hospitals and dank hovels, let us pray and then let us see that hope born in 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.”