A Nativity in New Orleans
It’s only the first week of Advent, but I’m already pulling myself into the story of Christmas. Drawing from personal memory, I am slowly immersing myself in the wonder of paying homage. It kind of feels like an overdue baptism.
Several years ago, when the Conference of our denomination had its annual meeting in New Orleans, my family came along. The kids couldn’t have been more than 8 and 5 years old respectively. In the evening, we walked down Bourbon Street to a restaurant for dinner. As we walked in, Mac, our older child, noticed a young man sitting on the street asking for money to get something to eat. Some passersby flicked him loose change, but most ignored the man. That picture instantly consumed Mac.
In the two-story restaurant, we happened to be seated upstairs on a patio overlooking the street where Mac could still just barely see the young man. We ordered our dinner. Mac was quiet with his head turned down slightly throughout the meal. He only took a few bites of his dinner, meticulously setting aside a tiny portion for himself and leaving the rest. When the check came, he asked if he could give his dinner to the man on the street.
As we approached the man, Stacy and I asked Mac if he wanted us to give his food to the man, assuming he would be intimidated by a stranger. He shook his head and walked up to the man, holding a bag with a warm boxed meal inside. Mac did not set the bag on the ground or look over the man’s shoulder. Instead, the two looked each other in the eye. I don’t recall what Mac said or if he said anything, but the man took the gift from Mac’s hand and said, “Thanks, little man!” Mac flashed a shy smile and held his head higher.
To be clear, that memory does not romanticize charity for me. At this time of year, it invites me back into the Christmas story, where magi who had extravagant treasures and shepherds who had nothing both came to pay homage to an innocent child. The baby’s family was on the street, left with only the shelter for farm animals to call home. It was there that people searched for them, saw them, and, upon seeing that holy picture, were so consumed with love that they fell to their knees and gave whatever they could to those strangers.
I imagine the experience changed them. As Matthew 2:12 says about the magi, they “went back home by another road.” Once you have an encounter like that, the course of your life can’t be the same. On this last Christmas our family will have with Mac before he graduates high school, I’m imagining how that experience on the street in New Orleans shaped him. I’m imagining how his determined refusal to not let the picture of a stranger in need leave his mind changed the road he took back home. I’m remembering this, and I’m yearning for that sense of wonder to consume me again…and again. May it be so for all of us as we remember the story of Christmas so deeply that we might move from telling it to living it.