Christmas and it’s coming each year draws people home–or at least to the thought of home, however far away that might be. Christmas music, both saccharine and more sophisticated, has often reflected on this dynamic of warmth and longing that animates the classic Christmas homecoming. Such return also brings with it the complexities and incongruities of family life: drama and discord can present an irritating obstacle to truly feeling at home during this time of year. The absence of loved ones, lost to death or distance or relational disconnection, can render Christmas an especially lonely time as well–a time of homelessness, perhaps, even amidst the festive gathering of family and friends.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
– G.K. Chesterton, “The House of Christmas”
The wandering magi, following the star signaling the birth of the Christ, are homeless (if not far away from home) at their visitation of the Christ child (Matt 2:1–12). Indeed, Mary and Joseph themselves have left their home in Galilee and repaired to Bethlehem, both for a census (Luke 2:1–5) and the fulfillment of prophecy (Matt 2:5–6). It is helpful to be reminded at Christmastime that the incarnate Son himself was homeless at the time of his birth, forced soon afterward to flee to Egypt with his earthly parents (Matt 2:13–15). In light of all the distractions of the season, it is the dispossession of Christ at the moment of his incarnation, which we must recall.
Classic doctrine has named the homelessness of Christ’s Nativity, “the state of humiliation,” or at least the commencement of it. Humiliation, in this case, designates not an insult to Jesus, but the undistinguished task he has of carrying the sins of the world to the point of death on the cross (Phil 2:8). Christ’s humble birth to Mary in Bethlehem marks Christ’s lowly entrance into the world and his coming to his own people.
John’s prologue indicates that “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:10–11). Christ’s incarnation could be thought of as a homecoming, for through him all things were made, as the Creed says. Christ was there at the beginning, for it is the Word of the Father that speaks all things into existence. His incarnation is a kind of completion of the creation, as some have suggested. But Christ’s birth in the stable is hardly the homecoming we might expect for the one by whom the world began.
Christmas is, therefore, the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry, even while he awaits a number of years to gather his disciples and inaugurate his preaching of the kingdom. Even here at Christmas, Jesus enters the world bearing sin, for here he takes on our own displacement in the creation. Eden was to be the place of human fellowship with God eating from the tree of God’s favor and avoiding the one of his wrath. But the expulsion from the garden marks this persisting problem of human vagrancy in the world God made for us and for himself. The people of Israel wander to and fro: first enslaved, then exiled, and finally subjugated at home under Roman rule.
Christmas is, therefore, the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry, even while he awaits a number of years to gather his disciples and inaugurate his preaching of the kingdom.
In his incarnation, Christ comes to bear this dispossession itself, entering the world in the most unremarkable of circumstances. He comes unto the world he made to rectify this wandering, to return humanity to the place of God’s favor that Eden was intended to be. His coming is indeed the completion of God’s creative activity in and for the world, but not without cross and resurrection as well. Christ comes and takes on our homelessness–felt so acutely by so many at this time of the year–just as he takes our other woes.
The paradox of Christ’s saving advent is that he does not simply ride in with all his divine majesty at the outset. Christ, as the incarnate Son, brings all this majesty with him, but he hides it from us. His cross and death, with the desolation of Holy Saturday, register the depth of this concealment. Jesus must first come and remove that which afflicts the world before he is set forth in the glory of his resurrection. He takes upon himself the burden of all our sins. He wanders and sojourns along with us in this world–not simply as an empathic sufferer, but so that he might actually return us to the place where we truly belong.
Christ comes and takes on our homelessness–felt so acutely by so many at this time of the year–just as he takes our other woes.
With Jesus Christ, we are truly at home. In the Father’s house, there are many rooms, and Christ has come to prepare that place for us (John 14:2–3). He makes a home for his people precisely by becoming homeless. He is forsaken by us, even in the act of executing our rescue and return to the household of God. Christ comes now at Christmas to retrieve the wanderer. The one who came to the world in the most unassuming form is now enthroned as king of all creation, yet still marked by the wounds of his death. In this kingdom, all of creation is now remade and renewed. In the kingdom of Christ, all his people are now indeed at home.