TODAY the YMCAs in the Liverpool City Region gathered for a carol service in the city’s Parish Church, opposite the world famous Liver Building. As the chaplain for YMCA Liverpool and YMCA St Helens, I gave a reflection on the Christmas story and what it means for the people the YMCA supports:
‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay’
So we hear again the story of Christmas. Maybe we’ve heard it so often that we haven’t noticed – Jesus knew what it meant to be homeless.
The manger we hear of in that famous children’s carol wasn’t a cosy crib – it was a feeding trough for animals. The newly-born Jesus and his parents were sleeping rough among livestock far from home.
After news of the birth of Jesus spread, they fled to Egypt to escape the violence of King Herod. Jesus and his parents were refugees, reliant on the hospitality of another country for their safety.
After they returned home, the 12-year-old Jesus was separated from his family in Jerusalem for several days before they found him. Jesus knew what it meant to be a ‘runaway child’, a ‘missing person’.
As an adult, Jesus lived in poverty ‘with no place to lay his head’, as we hear in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 9. He relied on the hospitality of others, and didn’t have a permanent home of his own. He reached out to people who were homeless, poor and oppressed. His actions are a model for how we might respond to poverty in our own lives and communities.
In the prologue from the Gospel of John, it says ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ These words were first written in Greek – a more accurate translation would be ‘pitched his tent among us’. The sight of people sleeping in tents on our streets has become far too common.
So what would this homeless Jesus say to us today? Maybe something here can help us answer that question.
At the end of a conference on homelessness in April this year, I supported four members of the YMCA community to reveal a moving tribute to those who sleep rough in our city. The event, called ‘Homeless and Rough Sleeping – Who Cares?’, was held at Liverpool Parish Church.
The church commissioned a bronze sculpture called ‘Homeless Jesus’, and invited our residents to unveil it, and meet other guests, including the Lord Mayor, and the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool who prayed for a blessing on the statue and all whom it represents.
The statue is in the garden of the church, better known to locals, including the homeless people who seek shelter here, as ‘St Nick’s’. If you can, go and see it.
It’s not your typical portrayal of Jesus – the sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz represents a life-size homeless person lying on a bench.
The figure is shrouded in a blanket with its face covered – in these dark winter days, the homeless Jesus is easily mistaken at dusk for a real, living homeless person, curled up under a blanket, rejected and alone.
The only indication that it represents Jesus is the visible wounds on the bare feet – the nail holes, the marks of crucifixion. Jesus preached a radical message of peace, justice and love that would eventually get him killed.
The sculpture suggests that Jesus is with the most marginalized in our society. Engraved on the flagstone in front of the bench is the message behind the artwork: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’, which echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25. Despite the message behind the statue, some people aren’t happy about seeing Jesus represented as a homeless person. Copies of the statue have toured the world, but some churches have refused the invitation to host it because of the potential controversy. The sculpture of homeless Jesus has been denied a home.
One resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, fearful for her safety, called the police when she first spied the statue at night, believing that a homeless person had come to stay in her neighbourhood. She rejected the sculptor’s theology, too, protesting that Jesus stands watch over the homeless to protect and care for them, so he cannot be one of them.
A homeless person huddled on a park bench is a sight we recognize only too well. We tend to ignore, walk past, and even step over homeless people. Encountering this sculpture is a stark reminder that our neighbour is homeless. Seeing Jesus in the rough sleeper on the bench is also a reminder that we are all made in the image of God. For the person suffering on that bench, cast out by us and our community, truly to be a beloved child of God – maybe that fearful American woman is right to call that a scandal!
If you dare to come so near, there is enough room left over for one person to sit on the bench – to make people think: ‘Would I sit next to a homeless person on a bench? Would I sit next to homeless Jesus?’
There is a beautiful poem by Elizabeth Barrette called When I Was Naked, which tells the story of a homeless man’s encounter with the statue on a cold, snowy night. His heart breaks to see ‘a dark figure huddled on a bench’. It might have looked something like this:
He covers the bare feet with his own coat, and discovers that it is a statue. He says: ‘I thought he was real – It made me worry about him.’ He sits at the feet of Homeless Jesus and shares his own story, saying, ‘Sometimes, it’s nice to talk with somebody who’s been there.‘