The image looks like something out of a graphic novel, and that’s not surprising because the artist Everett Patterson is a graphic novel illustrator. As you look at it, you can tell immediately that the setting is a gas station, likely on the bad side of town. It’s pouring rain; the angular young man in the ballcap and ill-fitting work shirt has shoved his backpack up against the wall to keep it dry while he makes phone calls. He has the air of somebody who’s been put on hold and left there for several minutes.
His girlfriend, we presume, is shivering in her high school sweatshirt, the hoodie pulled all the way up, and looking nervously out at the street. The window of the gas station behind them is full of ads for all the usual stuff: beer, cigarettes, candy bars; there’s a cheap motel across the parking lot, its sign missing several letters. The artist has described his illustration as representing “the many minor discomforts and petty indignities of urban America.”
With all that’s going on, the first time I saw this image it took me awhile to notice the sidewalk between the couple, where there’s something surprising happening. Just about halfway between him and her, coming up out of nowhere, is a bright green plant. Just a shoot, really, only a few inches high, but the rest of the scene is so industrially gritty that once you see this vividly green shoot, which almost seems to be glowing, you wonder what it’s doing there.
As long as you think you’re looking at a panel from a graphic novel, you focus on the tawdriness of all the details in the scene. But when you discover the context, everything comes together differently, because this 2014 illustration was actually designed for a Christmas card. And then the image of the green shoot makes sense: it pictures the prophecy from Isaiah of the new life that Christ will bring when he is born. “A shoot,” Isaiah wrote, “will spring up out of the stump.”
The title of the artwork is Jose Y Maria. The young couple, we realize, have just been turned away from Dave’s City Motel behind them: No Vacancy, it says. They need a safe place for their baby to be born. Mary’s hoodie, once you check again, reads “Nazareth High School.” That odd little blue decal on the gas station window turns out to be a dove hovering, revealing the presence of the Holy Spirit. The artist has written, “The main goal of this illustration was to pack as many clever biblical references into the scene as possible… There are at least a dozen, but a few that I’m proudest of are: the verse from the prophet Ezekiel in the graffiti on the phone kiosk, the way the [partially obscured] “Save More!” behind Mary’s head looks kinda like “Ave Maria!,” and the two [detergent] ads for “Glad” and “Tide” on the newspaper ([glad tidings] –
You know, most images designed for this time of year don’t look very much like Jose Y Maria. This season more often offers us cheery pictures, nostalgia, and slightly unreal beauty. If you go to Chicago and visit the Art Institute, you can see the miniature Thorne rooms all decked out for Christmas, or the stunning 18th century Neapolitan creche. You can drive through Candlestick Lane in Urbana to enjoy the old school holiday lights, or you can decorate your own place to the nines. And of course there are the Christmas cards – picturesque snowy villages, white colonial churches with a light in the steeple, Renaissance paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary, family portraits with everyone wearing a smile.
And all of that is lovely to see. Wishes and positive imagery and nostalgia are part of what makes this time of year special. But Everett Patterson’s Christmas card Jose Y Maria has more staying power, because it doesn’t merely show what we dream about; it shows what’s real. We live in that picture, that Christmas card. It’s where human beings actually are, and of course the only place Christ can come to us is where we actually are. “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah says tonight, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And the yoke of their burden, the rod of their oppressor, has been broken.” Churches don’t hold services on Christmas so we can sigh over pretty pictures of what we wish were true. We don’t get together to reminisce about how once upon a time, one night was silent and one little baby laid down his sweet head and there was one special moment of peace on earth, long long ago. We don’t read the Christmas Gospel wistfully, thinking “if only things were like that.”
No, we’re here for something a lot more hard-headed. We get together on Christmas to declare that God became a human being in Christ, that God came to where we actually are. And because God has done that and does do that, we can say with confidence that there is a great light, his light, available for us people who walk in darkness. There is light at the gas station with Jose and Maria, light with the women who’ve been made to suffer by powerful men, light with the families who feel like the American dream forgot them. Christ comes to the child who’s lost his daddy and the mom who’s lost her love. Christ comes to the living room where there’s no money for supper, and to the boardroom where the whistleblower is about to get fired.
Christ comes to any and every situation, as long as it’s real. He doesn’t come to reinforce somebody’s overblown image of themself, or to help them win votes, or to hide whichever of the flaws every human has happen to be their flaws. Christ comes to reality, because Christ is reality. If we look for him anywhere else than in the honest truth, we won’t find him.
Matthew Lee Anderson has written, “Our age is one of deep confusion about the nature and authority of reality, and one of endless amusements to help us avoid it. We are… working tirelessly [these days] to avoid God, our neighbors, and ourselves.” The very best thing Our Lord could give us for Christmas is something he is in fact giving right now. Our Lord gives you, here in this space, at this time, an environment in which you have before you the very real option to stop avoiding God, your neighbor, and yourself. You can let the amusements and the white lies and the evasions and the distractions fall away here and realize what’s true. You can do it tonight.
Here, you can look at Jesus, in the manger and in the Eucharist, and know that he sees you completely without condemning you. You can look at yourself in his light, and admit both the good and the bad without shame or fear. You can kneel at the communion rail with your neighbor this Christmas, or shake their hand at the Peace, based on the honest truth that whoever you are, the two of you are on absolutely level ground before a Holy and Loving God.
At Christmas the church doesn’t promise holiday sentimentality, and it doesn’t promise nostalgia. And that’s a good thing, because neither of those is going to give Jose and Maria, or you and me, what we really need most. All the church has to promise you is reality. Which is what we all need. Because Christ is reality, and today he is born.