And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
One of the endearing qualities of the Christmas Narrative is how it seems to relate to everyone! But perhaps of all the people who may find significance in this story would be those who have experienced incarceration. Dietrich Bonhoeffer a dissenting pastor imprisoned during the German Nazi Regime once likened Advent to being in prison:
“Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits,
hopes, and does this, that, or the other- things that are of no real
consequence- the door is shut, and can be opened only from the
outside.”Letters from Prison – November 21, 1943
Advent is also like getting out of prison. Consider the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and all that they encountered there. There are indeed some common experiences that ex inmates share with the Christmas narrative found in Luke’s Gospel. Here are four similarities…
A LONG JOURNEY
Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order for Joseph to register his family for the Roman census. It was a long and arduous journey for them, made even more difficult by the fact that Mary was close to delivering the Christ-child.
Likewise, for those coming out of prison, walking away from iron bars into a new life of “freedom” is also a long and tedious journey. Progress is not made by leaps and bounds but by “one step at a time, one day at a time.” It is frustrating, but any steps in the right direction are worth it. Step by step we can get closer to our desired destination!
When they arrived at Bethlehem, there was no room for Mary and Joseph, not even at at the local inn. The innkeeper turned them away not showing any sympathy for the birth pangs that Mary was experiencing.
Those who have experienced incarceration know all too well what it is like to be rejected; to be turned down for employment because of having a record, or to be denied a place to stay because of fear and distrust.
But Joseph and Mary did not let rejection deter them from finding a safe place to bring Jesus into the world. Likewise, we cannot allow rejection to keep us from taking the steps we need to be in a safe place. We have to just keep on “plugging away!”
In this situation, Joseph and Mary were essentially homeless. They had to take shelter in a cave, a place where livestock were kept.
Years ago, one Christmas Eve, I shocked some men at a homeless shelter when I proclaimed “You guys should identify with Jesus because He also stayed in a shelter. In fact, He was born in a shelter!” I went on to explain. “What is a shelter? It is a temporary place to stay.” And that’s exactly what the manger was to this new family… it was a temporary dwelling place… a shelter.
Jesus actually continued a “homeless” lifestyle for the entirety of His adult life. On one occasion he remarked, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20.)
I remember a good friend of mine who had spent about 17 years in prison, sharing with me how he spent his first weekend out of jail sleeping in a garbage dumpster in Toronto in mid-November! Yes, many of our community have experienced homelessness. And God Himself understands what this is like.
“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that
the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
Obviously Joseph and Mary had little funds; they lived a frugal lifestyle. Jesus, as He grew up embraced a life of poverty and simplicity. This son of a carpenter chose to live among fishermen, and merchants and the common people of society.
Most of our community members who have experienced incarceration know what it is like to hit rock bottom financially! Most come out of jail with empty pockets and empty bank accounts.
We can be thankful that Christ understands our poverty. He was born in poverty and lived a life with virtually “the clothes on His back.” He offers us this hope “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
CAN YOU RELATE?
There is so much more that could be said about the relevance of Christ’s birth to all people… to foreigners (like the Magi), to the lower classes (like the Shepherds), to the elderly (like Simeon and Anna) and I could go on and on… Do you get the picture? Jesus made Himself accessible to all!
The Christmas Story demonstrates to us the heart of God. It tells us, regardless of our stations in life that God is for us. It tells us, as His title “Emmanuel” suggests, that God is with us.