Blog Series: God is Near. God is Now.
Recovering the radical hope of the Advent and Christmas seasons has vast implications for how our congregations or alternative ministry contexts see themselves, the world, God’s presence, and how to move forward in turbulent times.
As Advent approaches, I find myself thinking a lot about Bethlehem, the very place where the Word became flesh and first dwelled among us.
Within a mile of the traditional site of Jesus’ birth stands a massive 30-foot-tall concrete wall that was built to separate Israel from the Palestinian controlled West Bank. Whether understood as a necessary security measure or an instrument of racial segregation, the Israeli West Bank barrier stands as an unsettling symbol of the discord, violence, and sectarianism that is tearing apart this region today.
But there is more to this wall than hate.
On the Bethlehem side, the wall’s concrete slabs double as a canvas for protest art. From end to end, the wall is graffitied with images and words that are equal parts provocative and prophetic. Some images hold a mirror up to the reality of everyday life, bearing witness to the trauma and grief that accompanies a walled-in-city. Other images dare to visualize a world transformed and healed. Still others seem to function as an invocation to prayer.
My favorite image is that of a woman in the orange silhouette. From her outstretched arms flutter doves, traditional symbols of peace. Behind her one can discern not only the outline of the town but what appears to be an eye that surveils the activities of the woman – and seemingly all who pause to gaze upon her. Who is this woman? Does she represent lady wisdom, who in Proverbs 8 speaks words of peace and righteousness at the crossroads of the town? Or are we to imagine her as the embodied Spirit of God that descends upon the disciples in Acts 2? Or do we see in her the outlines of teenage Mary, who yearns for a more peaceful world for her newborn son?
In the midst of interminable conflict, the wall in Bethlehem has become a public art installation. The creation of professional artists and lay people alike, this protest art is varied in substance and style. Image is layered upon image on what has come to be a living, evolving canvas that bespeaks what is otherwise unimaginable in that place: hope.
What if we began thinking of the Incarnation as a form of divine protest art? The Word made flesh, much like the art on the Israeli West Bank barrier, was intended to form social consciousness and bear witness to where healing is needed. Protest art is not meant only to be admired for its aesthetics. It is meant to mobilize responses of peace building and conflict transformation. So it is with the Incarnation. That the Word became flesh is not just an interesting fact of history to ponder or sing about during Advent. It’s a call to action. This is evident in the way in which reports of Jesus’ birth immediately cause magi (Matthew 2) and shepherds (Luke 2) to drop what they are doing and flock to Bethlehem to see with their own eyes the installation of God in flesh.
Further, protest art is, at its core, democratized art. Rather than being the work of a single famous artist, the images on the wall in Bethlehem are the work of the people – quite literally, a “liturgy.” Protest art is dynamic and responsive to evolving realities. It has the capacity to inspire hope even when (or especially when) such hope is beyond imagination. Perhaps this is exactly how we are to understand the song of the heavenly host who responds to the image of the Incarnation with the words, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors” (Luke 2:14).
That Jesus was born in a place like Bethlehem is not insignificant. For all we know, God could have had Jesus born in a far more significant or “holy” city, such as Rome, Jerusalem, Nineveh, or Alexandria. Each of these places would have been perfect…if the point of the incarnation was to tether the Gospel to political influence, power, wealth, or cultural cachet.
But that’s not our story.
God risked proximity with humanity in a place that was deeply broken. As it turns out, the Bethlehem of the 1st c. CE was not all that different from the Bethlehem of today. It, too, was a place in which poverty, political strife, sectarianism, and violence abounded. The Word became flesh in this sort of place as an expression of protest against the ugly realities that tear apart our world, then and now.
Much like the image of the woman described above, the Incarnation is not only meant to grab our attention; it’s meant to unsettle us, to compel us to puncture the pretense that everything is as it should be, to bear witness to the possibility of hope and healing. This has always been the function of protest art, whether human or divine.