“No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”

Those are the words spoken in a single-panel comic by Steve Breen for the San Diego Union-Tribune on December 2, 2022.

In this comic, a few people are walking down a paved sidewalk, surrounded by trees and shrubs in a public park. A couple of strands of white Christmas lights are hanging overhead across the sidewalk. In the foreground, we see an adult and a child – perhaps a grandfather and grandchild – walking hand-in-hand down the path, away from us, as if we are following them on their outdoor walk. They are looking over to the side, where, away from the path and in front of a low brick wall, a young family sits on the ground, huddled together with a few blankets. This family consists of a father, mother, and young child, and they are arranged in such a way that a passerby (like the grandchild) might notice a similarity to the familiar Christmas scene of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus lying in a manger.

“No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”

Take a few moments to sit with that comic, and think about it. I’ll share a few thoughts below.

If it’s not a manger scene, and if those are real people, then who are they? We don’t know. The comic doesn’t say. Perhaps they’re a homeless family. Maybe they are immigrants from another land without a place to stay. This comic appeared in a newspaper in San Diego, a city on the US/Mexico border. It could be that the author is making a comment about the presence of homeless immigrant families in his community.

What happens next? The grandfather and grandchild presumably continue their walk down the path. Do they keep talking about the family they saw? Do they stop and see if the family needs any assistance? Do they forget completely about the family and go back to their warm home with its Christmas decorations and chocolate chip cookies?

What about the other couple, walking further ahead on the path? Did they even notice the family of three?

What happens next to this family of three, huddled on blankets in a public park? Where are they going? Where have they come from? Are they alone? What’s their story?

I keep thinking about the grandfather’s statement: “No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”

But what if it really is a manger scene?

We prefer a sanitized, warm, and cozy manger scene (or “nativity”). We sing “silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” while we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and we imagine everything was perfectly calm and peaceful for Jesus and his parents. It was all very pastoral, with animals softly mooing and chewing their cud nearby, and with shepherds and wise men on their way to visit this newborn king.

But what if Jesus’s entrance into the world looks like a homeless immigrant family taking shelter in the only place available to them? What if Jesus has a lot in common with the child on the edge of Steve Breen’s comic?

After all, according to Luke’s gospel, Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth in Galilee, in the northern part of Israel. Because of a census / taxation mandate, they traveled to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem – a trip of perhaps 80-90 miles, which on foot would have taken multiple days. When they arrived in Bethlehem, there was no guest room available anywhere. Jesus was born away from home, technically a homeless immigrant. His first bed was a manger, a feeding trough for animals (which in first-century Judea would likely have been an indoor space, connected to the living area of the people who owned those animals).

According to Matthew’s gospel, this young family did not go back home to Nazareth immediately afterwards. Instead, they fled from Bethlehem to Egypt – a trip of perhaps 300-400 miles! That’s because of the murderous jealousy of King Herod in Jerusalem, who could not stomach the idea that a new king of the Jews had been born, as the wise men reported and inquired about. Jesus and his family lived in Egypt – again, they were immigrants, if not homeless as well! – until Herod’s death.

“No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”

But what if it is?

What if the wandering, struggling, homeless, poor, ignored, abandoned, overlooked people in our communities – regardless of how they arrived here or fell into hardship – can represent Jesus and his parents? What if our worship and adoration of the newborn Jesus can be deeply connected to how we care for the people on the margins of our society? What if God is inviting us to pay special attention to people on the margins?

As Jesus was fond of saying, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Pray this prayer by Claudio Carvalhaes, in his book Liturgies from Below:

Lord Jesus,
you were deprived of a home for much of your life:
you were born in a stable,
soon you became a refugee in Egypt,
during your ministry you said you had nowhere to lay your head,
you hosted your last supper before your death in someone else’s house,
you were buried in someone else’s tomb,
you understand the plight of the homeless.

We pray for those who have been displaced
by wars, land grabs, unemployment, and poverty.
When mining companies have come, raped our land, and used our people as cheap labor,
and have then deserted their mines, barren land impossible to cultivate,
they have left our communities in tatters.

Fathers, mothers, children have left home in search for work, for food, for meaning,
only to find violence, drugs, danger, rape, and loneliness,
in makeshift squatter camps, dominated by a few.
Rejected and ridiculed by all who pass by.

Where are you?
You have told us that you are with the poor and the homeless.
You have also called us to be their answer to prayer.
This is the radical gospel.
Can we live up to it?

During Advent, we prepare our hearts to invite you to make your home in us.
Give us courage and love to invite the homeless in our cities and townships into our own homes
and into our own church.
Help us to hear their stories and walk with them the extra mile,
for we are the hope that you have promised.


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