Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad! Happy Hanukkah, too! It is Christmas Eve as I write this. You’ll read it on the Fourth Day of Christmas, with UPS all set to drop off your four calling birds! Christmastide extends through Epiphany, the feast of the three Kings, on January 6, so please don’t put away your Christmas spirit just yet.
As I put down these thoughts, I am looking at a work of spiritual art that I hope will feed my spirit and form my attitudes through Christmastide and on into the new year. I share it in the hope that it will touch your hearts and fire your spirits too.
The image by artist Everett Patterson is drawn in literary comic-book style. In shades of purple, lavender and gray, it depicts a gritty street scene with a poor young Latino couple standing on a sidewalk in front of a convenience store at night. The man has a public telephone wedged between his shoulder and ear; he balances a phone book in one hand. His baseball cap is on backward. He looks worried. His wife rests at his side, resting by sitting sideways on a child’s mechanical pony ride. It’s marked out of order. She holds a hand over her very pregnant abdomen. She wears a watch cap under a hoodie pulled up so it looks a bit like a hijab. She looks worried too, and tired.
Are you starting to see the picture? The artist loads it with evocative hints: The woman’s hoodie reads “Nazareth High School” in capital letters. A sign in the store window, advertising Starr Beer, bears a blue neon star. A poster calls out “Good News.” Around the corner, a lighted sign for Dave’s City Motel reads “NO VACANCY.” A discarded newspaper in the gutter shows ads for “Glad,” “Tide,” and “Shepherd Watches.” In a crack in the sidewalk a hopeful green shoot has sprouted between the man and woman.
Are you starting to … get the picture? The image is titled “José y Maria,” “Joseph and Mary.” Suddenly it all comes together: The holy family as the other, the oppressed, a Latino couple in poverty, unable to find a room for the night, looking for shelter, worried about the child they soon will welcome into the world.
There is more going on here than the shock of the unexpected. This image brings us back to the very root of the Gospel, the sub-text of the story that we see in both Luke’s and Matthew’s narratives of the Nativity, if only we look closely enough to find it.
Like this couple, Joseph and Mary were poor, alone, a people oppressed in a land run by a distant empire. Their birth would be seen and celebrated by more of the poorest of the poor, shepherds out working on a winter night. Soon they would be forced to leave their land, desperate refugees, surely without papers, bound for a foreign country to save their child from an angry king.
Yet this is a father and mother visited by angels who told them of a different destiny, and they accepted that, the father taking his pregnant fiancee knowing that the child was not his own; the mother accepting God’s call to bear a savior, responding with a joyous song of God’s liberative power:
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Surely this bold mother helped shape the form of her Son’s Good News, a son who would go to the synagogue and preach from Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free …
As we go into the New Year, let’s hold the image of José y Maria in our minds and hearts, remembering that it was their son, Jesus, who grew from roots in poverty to remind us to love one another, love our neighbors, even love our enemies, and to give all that we have before we come, follow him.