If my mom hadn’t taken me by the arm to gently pull me aside, I could have very well tripped right over him. Never would I have expected it necessary to watch my step for someone sleeping on the side of the road. I remember looking behind me to be sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. I was disheartened to realize I had in fact seen a grown man, cuddled up in a ball, seemingly asleep right in the street. He had positioned himself over one of the vents in the road through which the heat from the subway below makes it way up and out of the underground.
It was my first trip to New York City and my sisters and I were enjoying a weekend filled with wonder as we took in the dazzlingly decorated sites of the Big Apple. We were treated to excursions to all the popular tourists attractions, including a horse and buggy ride to the theater district in which we saw the famous Christmas Spectacular. By the time we made our way back to our hotel that evening, it was dark and it was cold. I held tight to my mother’s hand and allowed her to lead my step as my mind was still absorbing all that we had seen and done over the past few days. I was all but entranced in a state of awe; the sparkle of the lights and the energy of the streets captivating me in a world where it seemed all was well. The sight of the man asleep in the street was an un-welcomed awakening; it was the unveiling of a dark secret the city had done so well to hide behind the bright lights and warm experiences of the past few days.
I was young and I was naive. I remember simply asking my mom why this man was asleep in the street, as if it had just been a silly decision on his part. The vision of this man stuck with me and left me completely unable to reconcile the vast difference between his world and mine.
The beginning of Advent means its time to once again bring the bins up from the basement and transform our home to reflect the beauty of the season. Nothing brings the season to life in our home quite like the manger scene. The tree is beautiful, the decorations fun, but the manger scene denotes the true meaning of the celebration to come. The tradition has always been to wait until Christmas morning to place baby Jesus in the cradle. As the youngest in my family, it was always my special honor to place the baby in the creche. It has become our tradition to bring our three children before the manger each Christmas morning to sing Happy Birthday to baby Jesus and allow our youngest to place Him in the arms of his mother before glimpsing the treasures hidden beneath the tree.
In contrast to what we have always known, the Bishop of our diocese, Bishop Libasci of Manchester, has set out a decree of sorts asking that the focus of the Advent Season this year be on the Christ child himself. All have been encouraged to display baby Jesus in our mangers and spend the Advent Season reflecting on His place in our lives. As Bishop Libasci describes, “What is being asked is that during Advent we take the infant (Jesus) as our centerpiece, remembering that He came as one of us.”
Reflecting on the scene before me as I position each character in place, I realize that, all those years ago, when baby Jesus was born in a dark, cold cave, there wasn’t much difference between the circumstances of his simple existence and that of the homeless man sleeping in the street.
So often I’ve wondered what it would be like to be homeless. How many times in my life have I said, “I just can’t wait to get home.” The physical structure of a house offers escape from so many things. It is a place to come in out of the cold, or out of the rain, safety in a storm, protection from the elements. It is a place to sit, have a meal, refresh and ready yourself for the next adventure that awaits. And of course the home within the house provides that place where even the worst day can melt away, where you can find comfort unattainable anywhere else, escape from the busyness of the outside world, and be loved just for being yourself.
Not being one to question tradition, I’ve never before taken the time to reflect on the significance of the manger scene without the baby Jesus. A closer look reveals the emptiness within. Without the presence of Jesus, it is just a cold, dark cave. It is a woman preparing to give birth among the stench of animals and the filth of their surroundings. It is a man, frustrated and unable to find room for his wife in any of the finer accommodations throughout the city. It is dark and full of fear. The shepherds have no reason to have left their flock and the wise men seem to have been deceived by the guidance of the star. It is full of people but void of life.
Place the baby Jesus in the manger and everything changes. It is warm. It is inviting. A refuge unlike any other has been created and it all exists within the tiny body of this precious infant. The fear is gone; the peace is real. The anxious hearts of the shepherds have been quieted and the wise men find the purpose of their travels. Hope has been birthed and joy has been found.
There is a connection between the baby in the manger and the homeless man on the street, and it goes well beyond the place of poverty they both find themselves in. While one may never be able to reconcile the harsh life of the homeless, the despair of the refugee, the pain of the victim of cruel and senseless violence, or the sickness of our loved one, the truth that is hidden within all of the suffering is that Jesus is the home in which we are invited to take refuge. Our personal invitation was extended the moment He entered the world, it remains today and will hold true for all eternity. He is our protection from the storm around us, the hope for the hopeless, the light for those encapsulated in a world of darkness.
There is a song I love by Building 429, titled, “Where I belong.” The refrain presents a unique lesson in the words, “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong. Take this world and give me Jesus; this is not where I belong.” It is true that this world was never meant to be Heaven on earth. We get pieces of Heaven through our loved ones and our experiences, but our real home awaits and all the gifts within are held in the heart of that sweet baby in Bethlehem.
Copyright 2015 Nicole Johnson