On the eve of Christmas, speaking at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., at the dawn of a new millennium, Archbishop Desmond Tutu used an unlikely metaphor to describe the miracle of Jesus’ entry into the human experience: graffiti. What does graffiti have in common with the coming of God’s Son? How can an act of vandalism be used to describe the birth of a holy child?
Archbishop Tutu was suggesting that Christ’s entrance into the world was as bold and as incongruous as the scribbled writing we see on schools, businesses, churches, billboards and freeway overpasses. Jesus was God’s graffiti, and his message was, “I love you with a love that has no boundaries or limits. I AM with you. Emmanuel!” Yet the retelling of the Christmas story has become so commonplace that we hardly hear how strange and offensive and remarkable and welcoming the whole scenario really was.
The birth of Christ has lost its power to surprise us. Consider some of the odd twists in this story.
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived in Nazareth of Galilee, a lowly town when compared to the capital of Jerusalem in Judea, a much more likely place for rearing a king.
- As an unwed pregnant teen, Mary walked almost 100 miles with her fiancé to Bethlehem; mothers will surely understand the distress this would have caused late in the third trimester.
- Due to a convention in town, this unlikely couple who God had appointed to be the parents of Jesus searched in vain to find a clean room, forcing their baby to be born in an animal pen filled with mud, rotting food scraps and straw—and no Demerol or epidural!
- After the delivery, the only birth announcements were sent via a band of angels to a despised group of migrant field workers Joseph and Mary had never met. Wouldn’t King Herod’s court have been a more appropriate place for the royal announcement?
Where would Jesus be born today, and would anybody take notice? In modern-day Jerusalem the world-famous King David Hotel is the place where diplomats and dignitaries stay. Certainly, Jesus’ parents would never afford the $4,000-per-night deluxe suite overlooking the Old City.
It’s a tricky business trying to predict where God would arrive if he chose to come to 21st century America. He has the strangest knack of showing up where we least expect him. This is evident throughout Scripture but especially in the life and teaching of Jesus. Here are just a few ways he surprised his followers.
It was the foreigner of another faith, a Samaritan, that helped the beaten and left-for-dead Jewish man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was the woman at the well, an outcast who had been abused by many different men, that became the first evangelist in the Gospel of John. It was those who didn’t even know they were serving God that received a joyful welcome into the kingdom, simply because they were helping “the least of these;” the self-righteous folks who sang beautiful praise choruses invoking the name of the Lord were left out. Surprise!
Where would God show up? I don’t know exactly, but there’s one thing I am sure of: he would not be in the places or with the people I would expect. This is the danger of discrimination. Nazareth, Bethlehem, unwed mothers, stables, shepherds—all the stuff of 1st century discrimination. Prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners—the preferred crowd of Jesus—were hated and despised, especially by the religious leaders. I wonder, would God appear with the people I am most prejudiced against? Will he continue to come to the places I and others might find offensive? Where would God’s birth announcement of “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” be received in great reverence and gratitude?
Perhaps the angels would proclaim the news in a border town detention center filled with refugees fleeing the oppressive regime of another country. Or, they might make their announcement of love incarnate on a Native American Indian reservation out of the sight and mind of the dominant culture. Maybe “Glory to God in the highest” would be broadcast to the forgotten community of Latino farm workers who harvest the food we eat. Or, might the angels’ message of “peace on earth” be delivered to an urban neighborhood stressed beyond limits because of gun violence? HIV/AIDS clinics, homeless encampments and domestic violence shelters—these are the places God would likely make his proclamation.
The myths we bring to the Christmas story can keep us from hearing the welcoming nature of the biblical account. Mary did not ride into Bethlehem on a donkey; the innkeeper never said, “There’s no room in the inn;” there is no mention of a baby sleeping in hay; Jesus’ birth more likely took place in a cave or grotto than a barn; and the magi were not kings, did not arrive until two to three years after Christ’s birth and no one knows how many there were.
Unfortunately, most of our understanding of Christmas comes through carols and cards rather than through the recorded narrative of the Bible. As we reread the story this holiday season, let’s prepare ourselves to be surprised. And, most importantly, let’s watch for God’s graffiti of love as he continues to come, revealing himself in the most unexpected places and welcoming those we might be least likely to.
Tim Neufeld is currently transitioning from Fresno Pacific University, where he has taught in the biblical and religious studies department for the last 20 years, to completing a masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. He plans to stay in Fresno, California, where he will open a private practice. He and his family enjoy leading worship at North Fresno Church, their home congregation.