This week, I attended a vigil in Hackney, to remember the life and death of a local man who had been living on the streets. For half an hour, we stood at the spot where Miro was assaulted, which left him with the injuries that he later died of. We stood in the dark, and the rain, and remembered his life. We remembered his wife, child and friends in Poland. We remembered the often cruel and unforgiving economic systems that lead people into such hardship. We remembered that Miro died alone, and we remembered that we knew little about Miro, the nature of his life on our doorsteps, how far removed we all were from his experience.
During the service, we heard a reading from Matthew, chapter 25;
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick, or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’.”
Hearing these words, in that setting, was sobering. To see – in the face of the hungry or thirsty, the lonely or sick, imprisoned, homeless, destitute, war ravaged – the face of the divine – what can that possibly mean? For me, a tentative answer is that this passage is telling us that it is not the case that, because we work for peace and justice for – and alongside – the oppressed and marginalised, we might encounter God in some utterly distant realm beyond this life, as a ‘reward’ for our ‘good deeds’. Instead, it seems that the encounter with the oppressed and marginalised is the encounter with God, that it is there that we find eternal life. In this parable, eternal life is built in our relationships, interactions, our work, our pursuits, and critical to that is a life lived in solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed.
This notion – of Christ being absolutely present in the midst of our world – is one that has particular resonances at Christmas. For me, the incarnation is the move from God being utterly beyond, distant, to God being utterly present, in our midst, becoming completely vulnerable to the ways of our world. In the story of the birth of Jesus, we find an image of the divine which forces us to stop looking beyond our own lives, away from our own world, as disconnected from our own communities, to a God we discover absolutely in our midst, as inseparable from the reality of ourselves and our sisters and brothers, as intrinsic to the very fabric of our social reality. My encounter this week at the vigil reminded me of the essential truth of Christ – that to claim a new-born child in first century Palestine is divine means nothing nothing, unless we can also sit with a homeless man, in London, in the 21st century, and see Christ.