This is our first true Christmas here and we are reaching for new traditions like a four-year old reaches for the star atop a tree. Last year our belongings, including Christmas stockings and chipped, hand-me-down decorations, were neatly tucked away in storage while we lived in someone else’s large and lizard infested farm-house. We did our best to celebrate joy coming down to the world but mostly it just felt like any other day.
This year we had a real tree. Juxtaposed with our annual jaunt to the tree farm where the kids and I traipsed through rows and rows of needly trees in the crisp November air, driving around the block to the Home Depot parking lot felt anticlimactic to say the least. There wasn’t the usual back and forth about which tree to get: fat or skinny, fir or pine or spruce, how tall is too tall. We just picked the first one we saw and all seven of us agreed.
But it was a real tree and we brought it home the day after Thanksgiving like we always do and William dropped down the dusty Rubbermaid containers from the attic and we began pulling out lights and ornaments and a Rudolph made of a small log and some twigs. It turns out most of the lights hadn’t survived the 1,100 mile migration south and several months in storage, but they would do.
I sweat as I wove strands of lights under and over the dry, prickly branches while the kids drank hot chocolate with their shirts off.
I thought about baby Jesus and man Jesus and wondered where is the thread that strings together this tree we are hanging ornaments on to the tree his divine yet wholly human frame hung on to die?
So Advent came and we celebrated Jesus’ coming and it all felt much too shallow and commercial, like it always does.
At the last minute on Christmas Day we decided to drive around and look at lights. We loaded the kids up in their pajamas, with hot chocolate for good measure, and headed toward a more affluent neighborhood.
There weren’t any lights. Any is my melancholy way of saying there weren’t as many lights as we were anticipating. There were a few houses with ropes of lights starting at the ground, coiling around the tropical trunks and climbing up the palm trees in their front yards. They were pretty, but they were still palm trees.
On one corner stood an impressive house with several large inflatable characters in the small patch of grass between their massive gate and the road. I think maybe there was a Snoopy, and probably a Santa.
We tried another row of streets known for their wealth a little closer to our house with no luck.
I mumbled something to my husband about heading back to the ‘hood to look for lights. I bet there are Christmas lights in the ghetto, I joked.
I turned left behind the failing elementary school, the one where bullets entered a classroom earlier this year, passed the simple playground tucked behind an old chain link fence and made our way to “the projects.”
And there they were. Lights. Bright white ones and colored ones. Flashing lights and dancing lights. There were people outside enjoying each other and there was not-too-loud music.
Of course the lights are here ,I thought, here on the margins, here with those facing homelessness, here where windows and families are broken by the weight of oppression and systemic injustice. Here, where Jesus would be if he were to walk among us today.
After all this time I’m still looking for Jesus among the wealthy and powerful, the rich and the clean, in all the wrong places.
Scholars believe the Magi in Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story had likely heard the prophetic writings of Daniel and they ended up on King Herod’s doorstep just the same. They heard the coming glorious King had been born and they went to the Kingdom. Of course they did. The world had yet to see a subversive King like Jesus. A King who is really and also God, leaving Heaven to come down into our ghettos. The magi, like everyone else, had no category for Jesus as King.
It was the shepherds – the lowly, dirty, smelly, outcast shepherds who the angel came to find. And it was they who had the humility to follow the light to the place where the coming glorious King had been born. I imagine the shepherds didn’t feel out-of-place in the manger/stable/cave where Jesus joined the world. And that was exactly the point. Had he showed up in a castle, the story would be an entirely different one. But He came to us on the margins, and is it any wonder we can still and always find him here?