Thirty years ago, I decided to paint a ceramic nativity set. Now don’t get too excited, the set is made of pre-cast ceramic green ware and my job was simply to decorate the pre-cast pieces and somehow bring them to life. As I sat in the art room of the nursing home I was working in at the time and chatting with the patients assigned to work beside me, I had visions of grandeur. As I worked on each figure, I somehow believed, despite my limited artistic skill, I could produce figurines that in their final form would be a cross between Hummel’s great works and Precious Moments.
I painted the kings with deep purples, reds and blues. Mary in traditional bright blue, Joseph and the Shepherds in earthy browns. Sadly the glazes I used were old and, I suspect, watered down to keep costs in check causing the glazes to run during the first firing process. Instead of receiving richly painted figures of the Holy Family, what I got in the end were figurines that looked very shabby and weather beaten.
As the art director inspected the end product trying to figure out what had happened in the glazing process, all she could say was , “well, they may not look grand, but they look more authentic than most of the nativity sets I have seen.”
As Mary said this, I realized she had a point. Somehow, throughout the centuries, Christianity has done all in its power to clean up the holy family. Mary and Joseph, were poor peasant people, who had traveled the long distance and rough terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Most likely they were dirty, dusty and quite smelly on the night Jesus was born. The shepherds, they too were poor, dirty and thread bare. And even the three Wise Men, as grandly as they may have dressed, they too would have arrived at the manger or even Mary’s house looking rather dusty and weather beaten after months of travel and the rough terrain between the Orient and where Mary and Joseph were living.
Too often we forget the exceptionally humble realities of the king and ruler we celebrate today. Too often we forget the truth behind the brass crosses we use to adorn our sanctuaries and homes. Too often we forget Jesus, our king was executed by Rome as a common criminal whose life was deemed worthless.
Even as we take time to recall how humble Jesus’ life was, we are still surprised, maybe even shocked, every time we hear Jesus tell us when we care for the least of his children we care for him. The truth is, we shouldn’t be, it was among the poor that Jesus lived his life and preached. It was the poor, the marginalized and those who had been in prison that were among his first followers. In St. John’s Gospel, the writer states, “The light has entered the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” As I read this passage, I often find myself rephrasing John’s words. More often than not I hear, “the light has entered into the heart of darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” As I reflect on Jesus life and death, I realize he was not afraid to journey into the darkest regions of human existence. When Matthew writes Jesus’ final words as, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know Jesus has entered the darkest place on earth, the place where God is not.
Among her letters and papers, Mother Theresa often wrote of not feeling God’s presence in her life. When this was revealed several years ago people were shocked, how could one so good, so holy, so fully devoted to God feel devoid of the Divine’s presence. Yet this is what she confesses throughout her later life, despite her ongoing rigorous prayer life and despite her undying devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. In the book, Come Be My Light, the letters of Mother Theresa, the editor, Fr. Kevin Kolodiajchuk, comes to believe the issue for Mother Theresa was not that God had abandoned her, but that she had so deeply entered into the lives and the world of the poor that she had actually become one with the suffering of Christ. Unlike so many of us who experience Christ from a safe distance, Mother Theresa, by journeying into the heart of poverty, despair and hopelessness, had journeyed into and come to live within the despair of Christ itself.
Last week, in his address to convention, Bishop Adams pointed to himself and said, “this is my body.” He then picked up a piece of bread and held it out to the convention floor and again said, “this is my body.” He then pointed to each of us and said, “this is my body” In so doing he reminded all of those present of the physical, spiritual and corporate reality of our lives as Christians. As I take time to reflect on our bishop’s words and actions in light of this morning’s Gospel, I now realize there is a fourth action he left out. Out there, beyond these walls. While yes we who gather within these walls are fully the Body of Christ, the Body of Christ is also found in its fullness out there. It is found in the gathering of the hungry and the homeless, it is found in those who are alone, among the many who reside in our local hospitals and nursing homes, and those who are in jail.
Often times Jesus tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is near, and yet we still have problems seeing it. This is because we have been fooled into looking in all the wrong places, told by our stain glass windows and golden crosses to look towards the palace that is warm and clean instead of to the hovel that is cold and dirty where a child sleeps in a feeding trough. And perhaps it is because we have forgotten Christ’s throne is not made of gold, but of the hard wood of the cross .
So when we hear Jesus tell us the Kingdom is near, remember to look where you would least expect to find him, on the streets, in the soup kitchens and in the places where the poor and the hungry seek shelter and solace. For this is where John tells us the light of Christ is to be found and this is where Jesus tells us we are to seek him in order to serve him.
Yes, the Reign of Christ we have prepared for and celebrate today is very near, but not where we expect.