When asked to identify common features of the historical Christmas storyline, many speak of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, angels, King Herod, and of course, the newborn Jesus. While this list of central figures provides a perspective of Christmas, we too often fail to recognize the social circumstances in which Jesus was born, thus our understanding of the nativity narrative is too often left incomplete. In other words, in the midst of our various congregational and community Christmas celebrations, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Jesus was brought into the world within a condition of homelessness. As a result, one can argue that we cannot fully commemorate Christmas without recognizing its social setting, for the context of Jesus’ birth points us toward the content and concerns of Jesus’ life.
While the Gospel promise of Christmas provides comfort and peace through the awesome in-breaking of God’s presence among us, the nativity account is also deeply confrontational, for we are challenged to envision the Son of God born into a setting in which most would find disgusting. While many Christmas songs, movies, Sunday school pageants, and holiday artwork depict the birth of Jesus as serene and delightful, the New Testament describes Mary and Joseph in the company of animal filth and unsanitary foulness. And so, instead of the charm and pleasantries of modern-day birthing centers, one can safely reason that Jesus’ first smells were saturated with the odors of animal urine and fecal matter. All together, Jesus was – according to the New Testament – born into a strenuous state of homelessness, and such circumstances should not be ignored or uncomfortably cast aside.
As people of faith it is crucial to recognize Jesus’ birth in the context of homelessness, for not only does such attention provide a more accurate portrayal of the nativity narrative, but is also points us toward that which Jesus calls us to prioritize.
According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the current number of homeless people in the US is estimated at 633,782. While the majority of our homeless population sleeps in emergency shelters or utilizes transitional housing programs, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that nearly 40% are unsheltered, and thus live on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended (or adequate) for human habitation. However, while the unsheltered homeless population has increased in recent years (due to unemployment, high housing costs, lack of affordable health care, etc.), the US federal government has repeatedly cut funding for public housing and shelters. Furthermore, many state and local governments have also reduced homelessness-focused resources, in addition to passing controversial legislation (such as anti-panhandling and tent-city zoning) that some believe unjustly criminalizes homelessness.
While statistics may reveal rates and responses of homelessness, the holy family of Christmas can demystify some of its causes. For example, the nativity narrative shows that Mary possessed a desire for more suitable family housing (Luke 2:7), and because Mary and Joseph traveled numerous miles (Luke 2:4) and Joseph was a self-employed carpenter (Matthew 13:55), their strong work ethic is on display. In addition, their response to Herod’s threats show a sharp intellectual capacity (Matthew 2:13-15), and their willingness to follow God’s instruction reveals a deep-rooted faith. And so, while Mary and Joseph were hard-working, mentally capable, strong in faith, and had a yearning for something better, they were nonetheless cast aside, pushed away, and told to move on despite their desperate situation. And so, with Mary and Joseph in mind, we should resist the simplistic and false assumption that homelessness is solely a direct result of personal laziness, incompetence, lack of faith, or absence of desire.
As many recite the New Testament Christmas narrative in the days ahead, we should indeed feel the comfort and joy of God’s presence, and we should gather with loved ones to celebrate the ways in which God accompanies humankind through the birth and life-giving company of Jesus. However, in the midst of our celebrations, we should also feel confronted, for the fact that homelessness continues to exist reveals that our public response to God’s amazing grace remains insufficient. As Jesus was born into the harsh conditions of homelessness, and because he later called his followers to embrace the excluded, as people of faith we should see the faces of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in all those who struggle for sustainable life, and thus collectively overcome the all too common myths about the causes and solutions of homelessness. The time is upon us to celebrate God’s abundant grace, but also recognize the confrontation of Christmas, and in doing so, journey with Jesus to ensure that all people can receive life, love, and the dignity of having a place to call home.