"This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12
As the people walked into the sanctuary, the worship team behind us started to sing. “This is Jesus, in his glory.” I stood there in my apron, gloves, and hairnet — as I had many times before — and watched our guests sit down at their tables. The first few people who came in were elderly Chinese, more women than men. Then, a middle-aged Latino man came in, followed by a few more elderly Chinese women. For a brief moment, there reflected in their faces, was Jesus in his glory.
This past Saturday morning, I served at my parents’ non-profit’s soup kitchen and food pantry, as I had for half of my life before I moved to Washington, D.C. From 9:30am-11:00am every Saturday morning, unlimited breakfast is served to a range of New Yorkers: young, old, employed, unemployed, white, black, Chinese, Latino, gay, straight — you name it, we’ve got it. Our guests are seated and given all they can eat and a bag of groceries, as well as access to legal aid, GED and ESL classes, and prayer. As much as it pains me to admit it — because, well, it’s my parents’ work — it’s kind of the real deal. The sanctuary-turned-cafeteria turns back into a sanctuary as Jesus — as seen in each of these men and women and children—is seen, in his glory.
How fitting, for this Advent season. Sunday was the start of Advent, a season of hope and expectation.Come, thou long expected Jesus. Every year Christians celebrate the liminal, the now and not yet, looking toward celebrating the Word becoming flesh.
It is sometimes difficult for me to reconcile the Advent carols we sing with the story of Christ’s birth. Our “long expected Jesus” was literally born in a barn. When we are instructed to “keep silence and with fear and trembling stand,” we do so, considering that this great Messiah was once a newborn baby with a red face and fontanelle, at the mercy of a poor and inexperienced mother. Nothing about the Christmas story matches up with the expectations of that long season of Advent, of waiting for the coming of this Savior.
And so it remains. When Scripture says,“‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’— the things God has prepared for those who love him,” I am often astounded at how often I come close to missing the great blessing in the middle of a hot, steaming mess of circumstances. Maybe it’s just how God relates to me, but I have yet to experience a sanitized, sterile, or even just placid gift of grace. To me, the Christmas story reveals God’s sense of humor.
We would have seen this young mother, her scandalized not-yet-husband, and her “illegitimate” son squatting in a barn and thought about how we could help this poor family. Is there a helpline we could call? Some cans of food that we could donate? Let’s really be honest, we might also have clucked our tongues and thought “There but for the grace of God go I.” “Another drain on the system,” we might have judged. “Babies having babies.”
We wouldn’t have known anything about that family — about the miraculous, angelic visitations, of the army of angels descending to sing “peace on earth and goodwill,” of God being in their midst. We wouldn’t have seen Jesus, in his glory. We wouldn’t have seen our own unworthiness. We would have just seen more needy people and offered this Jesus our own righteousness, like the cans of green beans we impulse-bought before a snowstorm.
Yet in that family was the salvation of the world — the “light of light,” the “Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.” In that family was Someone who was prepared by God both for those who loved God and those who didn’t. The “Hope of all the earth” was not born in a palace, or even a really nice, middle-class home. Nothing about Jesus’ birth was respectable. He would have walked into that soup kitchen on Saturday and most of us wouldn’t have known.
This is Jesus, in his glory.
That newborn baby grew up to be an ordinary-looking man who set the world on fire and then was extinguished by a world whose eyes could not see, whose ears could not hear, and whose minds could not conceive of what God had prepared for them. The suffering, bleeding man on a cross, abandoned by all of his friends, condemned in a show trial and executed by a cowardly leader. And yet on that cross was Jesus’ hour to be “glorified.”
This is Jesus, in his glory.
Come, thou long expected Jesus. In all of your glory. And help us to see you.
Juliet Vedral is Press Secretary for Sojourners.