There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of god.
And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.”
― Mary Oliver
I swore we were not going to be the family that owned a minivan, but when we needed to purchase a reliable but inexpensive used car in a pinch that would fit our family of five, we turned to a used Nissan. The vehicle was in great shape, but we soon learned minivans had come a long way since this particular model’s design was implemented. The single side sliding door, the bulky infant seat blocking complete passage of anyone larger than two years of age, the gutless engine squabbling anytime someone dared press with persistence upon the accelerator all posed as slight inconveniences. The greatest inconvenience however, was our invisibility. If anyone needs to rob a bank – borrow a minivan. It was as if we were cloaked, until we attempted to pass.
It’s a hard thing to go unnoticed. While some people prefer this, I don’t. I liked my cars. I wanted to look cool, gaining certain approval while being that mom with the fun car. But when you need wheels, you need wheels, cool factor notwithstanding.
Before our van ownership, minivans were also invisible to me. But you know that thing, when you’re researching a new car and now you can’t stop seeing the thing you never saw before. Yeah, that’s how it was with the vans. My perspective shifted and I couldn’t not see them.
Perspective shifts seem to happen when we find ourselves with a fuller, truer understanding of a person or situation. Oftentimes these can be watershed moments when our old lenses are replaced with new and everything rearranges itself. We stop dwelling within our ignorant and limited view, accepting the potential for new truth. We gain fresh eyes to see. Sometimes this work is uncomfortable and leveling, but it is natural, normal, and essential.
Advent is an important time to seek a new perspective. I have found it helpful to try to place myself in the Nativity – to imagine what it might be like as Mary, preparing for birth while travailing the desert on the lumpy, itchy back of a donkey. As a wife I consider the mixed emotions Joseph must have felt as his expectations and preparations were complicated by the needs of God. And as a human, I imagine myself amongst sheep on a chilly night while a chorus of angels deliver odd, yet gratifying news of a lowly king’s birth. This exercise uncovers a new, yet familiar perspective on a nonsensical story.
But my little exercise can only take me so far, because this young family was not like mine. I am American, white, straight, Christian, privileged. I am part of the dominant narrative with a mortgage and healthcare, blonde and blue-eyed boys, a full pantry, and heat. I am passable and not sought by authorities. At first impression, I’m not a threat to the status quo. The world recognizes me and mine, and accepts us. We pass.
But this was not the case for Jesus’s family of origin. They did not pass. They were not revered. They did not get by without suspicion. Which begs the question to those of us in my particular demographic, would we ever recognize, much less accept Jesus if we ever saw Him? Is it possible? Or would He be invisible, cloaked by our privilege and supposed righteousness?
Our perspective shift, our ability to recognize Emmanuel – God with us – occurs when we line ourselves up with the people Jesus did. We get to see Jesus when we feed the hungry and offer drink to the thirsty. We discover Jesus when we visit the imprisoned and clothe the naked. We recognize Jesus when we share our home with the stranger, when we exhibit care to the sick (Matthew 25:31-46). Until we participate in the revering of the least of these, Jesus’s arrival in our lives and world will go unnoticed by us.
And as I take inventory of my surroundings, I would contend one of the greatest casualties of our inability to see Jesus in our everyday, is our joy.
Joy, the lifeblood of our days, the persistence of goodness despite circumstance. Joy, the carefree release of weighty burden.
Joy cannot happen until we begin to divest ourselves of the power and privilege that plagues this affluent nation. Joy cannot happen until we empty ourselves of our self-righteousness and self-hatred and self-importance. Joy cannot happen until we seek the company of them and we recognize there is no us and them beyond a few choices and luck. Joy happens when we observe the world through lenses of empathy, compassion, love, concern, relationship.
And until we can dine with the unsuspecting, walk with the humiliated, weep with the outcast, Jesus will remain cloaked to us. As Christians, we will sadly ignore the One we claim to follow.
I do not want an invisible Jesus – one that escapes me because I’m too bent on my own gain and my own comfort. I want to see Him. I want to experience the birth of Him just as I experienced the birth of my own babies. I want that squalling infant in my arms, protesting injustice and chosen blindness with each tear and clenched fist. I want to whisper into His tiny little ear how much I love him, knowing His love in turn.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.