And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
When Everett Patterson’s image emerged in my newsfeed about a week and a half ago, I was immediately drawn to the setting. I knew the place where José y María found themselves at rest in the rain. I knew it had to be a gas station because I knew these people. I began working at my father’s gas station when I was thirteen years old. I grew up there. I still lean into the life lessons that emerged in the hours between cleaning tools, waiting on customers outside (at our station the art of the full service fill up was not dead), and cramming high school homework in between fill ups.
The “shop,” as we call it, is an oasis, a gritty and real sanctuary in a small Mid-Atlantic town that is more Rustbelt collar community than chic suburb. My Dad always told me that everyone came in there; “The rich and the poor get their car fixed and even if you don’t have a car you’ve probably wandered into a gas station for one reason or another.” It is true. It gave me such an appreciation for life in all its forms. The “shop” was a waystation in a backwater that taught me to take people as they are not as I would like them to be. Like Bethlehem in the waning moments before Jesus and like the unnamed place depicted in Patterson’s image, it is not a destination. It is a real place where the event of God does happen. It is full of beauty and brokenness, prepared and not quite ready for Christ’s coming.
I experienced the world’s brokenness on a Saturday just before the holidays. I was about seventeen, and a couple entered the small waiting room right in front of my register. They stopped in front of the counter that separated us bickering as they entered and not paying any attention to me. The man asked for cigarettes, and as quickly as I had turned to grab them I heard him yell at her. I turned to find his hands around her neck. When she glanced at me and grabbed his forearms to remove his grip, he turned and looked and released her. She ran out. I stood stunned, paralyzed. He stared at me, turned, and walked out the door yelling after her. I never said a word, and it took me a few minutes to call the police. When they arrived I was no help. I could offer no description of the two, and I could only point in the direction that they traveled.
This moment was the polar opposite of the serene tableaus that we will sing of and witness to in our churches tonight. Not an Advent has passed that I have not thought of that moment, my brokenness and inability to act, and the hard lesson in sin that it provided. I became attentive to the fact that our “holiday” is not a break from the hard realities of the world and, in some measure, should not be a denial of it. As anyone that has experienced grief and loss in this season can attest, the difficulty of this moment made me realize that hardship constitutes the story, too.
Christ is born into a world in which families are being destroyed by domestic abuse. Christ is born into a world of horrific gun violence that screams for redemption. Christ is born into a world in which welcome, hospitality, and accompaniment for and with refugees – hallmarks of the season’s Gospel stories – is explicitly rejected in our national discourse. Christ is born in the midst of joblessness and scarcity, hunger and vulnerability. Christ is born amidst grief and mourning and loss. The world is prepared and not yet ready.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
It is striking that this decisive event, the birth of “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” is marked by two things – a mother’s love and humanity’s disregard for it. The call implicit in this moment is to be attentive as Mary is attentive to the child Jesus. We receive God’s very self – meek, vulnerable, and unfamiliar – as someone that we need to care for and nurture. Where Mary and Joseph succeed, Bethlehem fails. The call was always the same. We have to care for those God puts in front of us. God is made real in the world in the same way that each of us was introduced – in and through a community of care.
I experienced that community of care in so many ways at the shop that I had difficulty choosing a story to tell. My prayer has been marked by joy and gratitude from that time. Richard died recently after an extended illness, and I share about him in that spirit. While I was in high school, Richard visited with me once a week usually over my calculus homework. He taught me how to have a friendship across a generation. I warmly remember our conversations about music and faith. Richard also taught me about the complete gratuitous nature of joy in friendship. He gave me Christmas cards, bought me coffee, listened to me at a time when adults were typically running the other way from my angst. For the last sixteen or seventeen years since I regularly worked at the shop, he asked my father about me every time he came in for gas until he could no longer. As a friend of mine says, “Richard was a beaut.” Indeed. He walked with me. Emmanuel. God with us.
This authentic accompaniment by others in the everyday circumstances of life are an experience of Incarnation that I need to keep at the center of my prayer. These little advents have become much more important to me as my theological and ministerial vocation has developed alongside of my vocation as father and spouse. Recently, experiences of a community of care have been difficult to even draw forward. Many are targeted by others in the community instead of being embraced by them, and we are all threatened by the systemic and pervasive ways that we do not embrace the presence of God through our neighbor.
Attentiveness to this type of accompaniment does more than provide us with mile markers for our journey of faith. It fosters a vision of community centered on God and it offers us lessons in establishing relationships that sustain us in the midst of brokenness. When we are attentive to the ways that God accompanies us, we allow God to transform our communities into authentic living for one another.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
One of the things that I love about Patterson’s image is that it invokes God’s accompaniment in past, present and future in really creative ways. The shoot from the stump of Jesse emerges from the cracked sidewalk and the image of God as shepherd is invoked in the graffiti (Ezekiel 34:15-16). José, a carpenter, wears his name on his shirt just as my father does today, and the Word made Flesh is emblazoned on Mary’s ride so that it is present to us beyond her belly but not yet visible. The future is proclaimed as well. The Epiphany is foreshadowed in beer and cigarette signs while the sweetness of the Good News and the presence of the Spirit are stuck to the window.
We are invited to contemplate the ways that God’s accompaniment has always been and will always be present to us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Far from being ethereal realities like some airborne theophany, the angels we have heard point back to our experience. They speak to the birth of what is small and vulnerable in what may be the most unlikely of places. “For today… a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” Truth. God accompanies us no matter where we find ourselves, even if it is at a payphone at a gas station on Christmas Eve.
John DeCostanza, Jr. is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. He is an ecumenical D.Min. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.