It’s not easy to be poor; it’s that simple. A puff of wind pushes you this way or that and you fall off the high wire you’ve been walking. Life is hand to mouth. And if you are a part of the peasant class like Joseph, Mary and their young child, Jesus, you’ll never get out of it. There is no social mobility. It’s not that wages are just stagnant; they are unpredictable. And since a foreign government occupies your land you are heavily taxed to underwrite the cost of the wealthy elite, vast building projects and the empire. Everything is rigged to benefit those in power. Their affluence is funded from the broad bottom. The money runs uphill, the trickle up theory. And that’s where the peasant class lives and dies, on the bottom.
Life is precarious for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, because that is where they live. So the idea of taking a mandatory journey to Bethlehem was no small matter. They could barely afford to live day-to-day.
Living off the charity of extended family and friends in Bethlehem, they couch surf; the manger being that crib, the livestock pen the spare bedroom. That’s what you do when you’re at the bottom, like most the people they knew.
Among other things, that is the absolutely stunning and mind-blowing realization; God chooses to enter the drama through a hatch in the bottom of the stage. It wasn’t the first time, of course. A doomed baby named Moses floated in a basket down the river to a destiny that would change his people. The youngest of Jesse’s sons, David, the one exiled to sheep herding, was anointed to become the king of Israel. And here, again, in the fullness of time and in the basement of history, the Son of David sleeps among the livestock.
I wish I could tell you that it got easier. But I can’t tell you that.
In time, and like a scene from Star Wars or The Hunger Games, the Empire becomes aware of a rebel arising out in one of the distant outposts or districts. In fact, some wandering holy men are escorted by security forces in to have an audience with the monarch of the region, one of the puppet client kings of Rome, Herod. Like most fascist despots this ruler lied and feigned sympathy to locate this rising star. But the wise men are discerning; they intuit the false pretense, the lying, and the posturing. So when Herod releases them – wanting them to find the One for him so that he, too, can pay tribute to him – they know he is not to be trusted. Deeply spiritual people sense the duplicity in those who lust for absolute power. They know that absolute power cannot tolerate a rival. They know he will kill the opposition in one disingenuous way or another.
As a part of a dream fest, the true intentions and situation of threat is revealed to two groups of people. The first is this group of Magi, wise ones, and rather than return through Jerusalem to inform Herod where the star child is they return home by another route. When Herod discovers that his informants have disappeared he is enraged and goes about a campaign of ethnic cleansing to liquidate his supposed rival. He throws a broad net of death over any children who might be in the range of this rival King. The swords flash.
In the meantime, the second group, also informed by means of a sacred dream, has been forewarned. Joseph is shown in a dream that he must flee for the lives of his family. If you thought it was bad to be a peasant, if you thought it bad to be a peasant in an occupied land, if you thought it bad that they had to take the time and resources to travel out of town for an enrollment, it has now become worse.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus have become political refugees. They are not economic migrants moving for better opportunity. No, they are fleeing the threat of death, leaving their homeland that has become a death trap and crossing the border into another land as refugees. Now they are even more vulnerable and depend on the generosity, hospitality and compassion of people they don’t know and that don’t know them. Like their ancestors they have become exiles, strangers in a strange land.
Like his ancestor Joseph of the coat of many colors and his brothers who fled famine in Canaan and crossed into Egypt, so Joseph the father of Jesus headed across the same border but not because of famine. This time he crossed the border to escape the empire’s security apparatus and death squads. The little refugee family hopes the border is open. They hope there is a way to exist in another land. They hope people will take them in.
Like this Syrian refugee family fleeing the ancient war-torn city of Aleppo, the sounds of war barely behind them, they hope that someone will take them in. They hope that the doors of Turkey, Jordan, Europe or the United States will be open. The powers and principalities of this world have done their very best to bomb them into oblivion and they flee for their lives, often on foot, by boat, by donkey.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus were just such a refugee family.
If you are wondering how and where God enters the world, here it is. God comes by way of the margins, through the basement and undercroft of history, in the faces of the least of these, in ways that confound the places and people of power. The ways of God are found on the other side of violence and hate, through the hallways of hospitality.
If you wonder where Jesus is today, wonder no longer. Jesus is where oppression is at its worst, in the dark little corners of the forgotten world, abiding in hearts of all who are pursued yet remain courageous. Jesus is born and travels ever at the edge and may be found wherever the wise follow and evil attempts to destroy. There you will find him. Not in the conventional religious places that may automatically come to mind. But rather in the surprising places where the God of downward mobility chooses to show up, a trickle-up movement that confounds the world even as it gives unexpected hope. And when you sing the carols of this season it is for the sake of this Jesus and not another that you lift up your voice.