Jesus was a nobody (and this is good)
First off, hello again! I'm back! After my second year of graduate school, this blog kind of tapered off a bit. Which is to say, it tapered off entirely. I had been toying with the idea of writing on this blog again for several months, but never decided to sit down and do that. But recently I was given the opportunity to do some spiritual reflecting.
Before I talk about that, a couple updates. First off, I got engaged! My fiancée is a veterinary student at Kansas State named Elizabeth, and I really couldn't be happier to find a partner to set up a life and family with. Of course, that won't happen for a couple years, given that she's in Kansas and I'm still a grad student at Penn State; we need to finish our programs first before we can do any serious planning. The job market obviously factors in. But this particular development has given me additional motivation to finish up my PhD.
Which, by the way, I'm on my way to doing. This past year I had a paper accepted to the journal of Discrete and Continuous Dynamical Systems, and it will be officially printed in February of 2020. But if you're interested, you can read the paper for free on arXiv here. A second paper is in the works, so I'm optimistic about finishing in a timely manner. Teaching has been productive also, and I have some reflecting to do on that as well—I've learned a thing or two about different kinds of knowledge. Stay tuned.
Anyways, on to what brought me back to this blog. (I should preface this by saying that while this is still a math, science and spirituality blog, this post is really about Christianity specifically, and may not be of great interest to everybody. I'll return to talking about science and spirituality more in the coming weeks.)
The chaplaincy of my undergraduate alma mater, Hamilton College, has a tradition of sending Advent reflections to interested community members, including alumni. Every year since starting at Hamilton, I've received these reflections, and on a few occasions I've contributed. This happens to be one of those years. Last year around Christmas, I had a bit of a startling realization. Something occurred to me that had never really occurred to me before, but on further consideration, it's really quite obvious.
Jesus was a nobody.
If you're already offended by this statement, allow me both to explain what I mean, and to make a case for why this is a good thing.
Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to be in Bethlehem on the day Jesus was born? My guess is what you might imagine happened was pretty different from what actually happened. To really put ourselves there two thousand years ago, let's think about what it might look like today.
Imagine you are in your hometown. The holiday season has called you to be with your family, and for now, that's the only thing that you can think of. But just as you turn the corner to come to your home, you happen to see a young, poor couple—a man and a woman—huddled together on the sidewalk. They're homeless, and the woman is pregnant. Judging by her age, you guess that she probably got pregnant out of wedlock, or otherwise got herself into this mess. You tell yourself you'd like to help them but you have no room where you live, and you can't take in this family in the state they're in. Perhaps a homeless shelter can lodge them, but you know that in all probability, the shelters are full at this time of year. Maybe you feel a little bad, but really there's nothing you can do.
Anyone who comes from a big city has very likely had almost this exact experience, so this story may feel uncomfortably familiar. But it might seem uncomfortably familiar for a different reason. If your home town were Bethlehem, and if instead of a holiday it was a census you had to register for, Mary and Joseph would have seemed almost no different to us than the homeless pregnant couple of today's holiday season.
Now imagine you're a custodian working the night shift at a nearby apartment building. An angel has just told you the Son of God has been born in your city, and gives you an exact street address to go visit him. Amazed, you look up this street address in Google Maps, but you frown. This can't be right. The address you've been given is for the city pound. But despite your doubts, you go to the pound, and that homeless woman has given birth in one of the kennels. You look down at the child in her arms. On the one hand, this looks like just another infant, and the only other people with her are her partner, the pound's night crew, and about a dozen stray dogs. No rational person would look at this picture and think, "Yep, that's the Son of God, alright." On the other hand, simply being in this infant's presence fills you with warm light. Your anxiety over the semester evaporates. Your guilt over that awful argument with your coworker disappears; you still remember the argument, but it's as though a voice is telling you, "It's okay. You don't need to stay angry with yourself." And in that moment, you've never felt more at peace.
You rush home to tell your family about what you've just experienced. But you're saddened and frustrated to discover that as entertaining as they found your story, they can't bring themselves to believe this child in the city pound was the Son of God, whatever that means. You think to yourself, "Yeah, this story does sound pretty crazy, and I probably wouldn't believe me either. But I know what I saw and what I felt." You only wish your friends and family could have seen this, too.
We often walk past Nativity scenes at this time of year, of Joseph and Mary praying over a manger in which lies a beautiful glowing child. Mary is dressed in a beautiful shawl, and there are animals and kings worshiping this smiling, glowing child as well. (And, yes, the holy family is almost always white, which I find particularly unlikely to have been the case.) But the real story was probably a lot messier. Remember, only one farmer made any effort to accommodate this family. Besides this farmer, no one wanted to help them. And unless you happened to be a shepherd watching your sheep that very night, you probably didn't know this family passed through your town at all. You may have even walked right past the house where Jesus was born; you would have had no way of knowing how important this child would be, or even if there were a child at all.
Now, one more thought experiment. Let's look at what happens next in the story, and now say you're a night crew employee at the city pound. You've given this poor pregnant woman a cot and a kennel to give birth to her child in. Then a small group of clergy and religious scholars arrive. Surprised, you let them in. They bend to their knees and start worshiping this child you've just seen this poor woman give birth to you. This truly confuses you; these people who just came in are religious leaders, and yet they are paying homage to this homeless woman's child. Then one of them turns to you and explains more about this man and woman.
It turns out that young the man this woman is with has been working in the United States for the past five years. Both the man and the woman were born in another country, but after this man was laid off from work, the two of them were financially incapable of returning home. (Yes, I know the typical situations of undocumented immigrants in the United States are usually much more complicated than this, but bear with me.) However, ICE has received word from an anonymous tip that two undocumented immigrants are having a baby this night on American soil. So they plan a massive raid on all homes and businesses they suspect may be hiding undocumented immigrants. This couple knows they have to get out of the city before this happens. Otherwise, their child will almost certainly be taken from them, and the fact that children have died in ICE custody in recent months is now a well-documented phenomenon.
The clergy telling you this ask if there is anything more you can do to help them avoid this outcome. You've helped them this far, but you do not want to do anything against the law. If ICE comes looking for them, that's not your concern. Neither the city pound nor your house can be used as a sanctuary for this family. So in an act of desperation, this family flees to the countryside of a neighboring state. You breathe a sigh of relief. They're on their own now. You won't tell ICE where they were going, but you no longer have to risk your own neck to keep them safe in the city pound or your home.
Some folks may accuse me of callously and needlessly introducing politics into this religious discussion. But my views on immigration policy are beside the point. As soon as Jesus was born, his family had to flee Herod's armies. In effect, they had to break the law in order to survive. In their desperation, does this really make them so different from an undocumented family the government is threatening to separate from their children, especially given the mortality rate of children in ICE custody? Who was there to care for them and protect them? Not the farmer at that point, and likely none of their neighbors.
Here's the uncomfortable reality. Jesus was born a nobody. At least, a nobody as far as most of the citizens of Bethlehem were concerned. His birth probably went unnoticed by the majority of the people in the city. And yet it is precisely because Jesus was born a nobody that makes him so wonderful. Throughout Jesus's life, he was always among the smallest of us. Surely, if Jesus wanted to be a great king and live luxuriously (in fact he had the opportunity at least three times), he could have if he truly were the Son of God. But he stayed small at every turn. And in staying small, Jesus revealed how great God's love truly is. This is what I find most amazing about this season of Advent. We are celebrating more than the simple fact that Jesus was born. We are celebrating the entirety of his birth, including the ugly and uncomfortable parts of it. Part of what makes Christ's poverty ugly and uncomfortable is it forces us to confront our own shortcomings, especially in how we deal with the smallest people in our society. It really brings new meaning to Matthew 25:40-45. But it doesn't have to be uncomfortable. Our King is a small king. Our Savior is one who engages with us, and knows the depths of our suffering. The radicalness of this theology in the first century CE cannot be overstated. In my view, there can be little better evidence of the hugeness of God's love than the smallness of God's son.
So this year, if you walk past a Nativity scene, take a moment to remind yourself how small that scene probably was. Celebrate that smallness. And ask yourself, in what small places could God be living today? And how surprised would I be to find them?