Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent: Mary and Joseph Search for Shelter

Today is, for many Christian communities, the Monday of the fourth (and final) week of Advent. Advent is a season of liturgical remembrance and expectation devoted to preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

In the synoptic gospels of (Matthew and Luke), which provide the background for much of the imagery of the Christmas story, and for the songs Christians sing during the Advent and Christmas seasons, emphasis is placed on the humble conditions into which Jesus was born. The Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke weave a narrative that seeks to involve readers in a dramatic story: a story of God’s astonishing humility in taking on human flesh, and, not merely human flesh, but the flesh of a poor, displaced person living at the fringes of his social world, of a person whose parents could not find a house in which their child might be born, or anyone to assist the mother as she gave birth.

The Nativity narrative speaks of Mary and Joseph setting out for a large city to obey a governmental demand, and finding no place to stay—no room at the end. In some Christian countries, people act out this aspect of the story during Advent and the Christmas season by having people playing the role of the Holy Family go from door to door, where they find no place to stay, until the only option left is a barn in which the holy infant of the narrative can be born in a manger.

As my own contribution to such enactment of this dramatic story during the final week of Advent, and as a way of deepening my own engagement with this story, I’ve chosen to relate Advent and Christmas this year to my country’s debate about health care. I live in a nation that touts itself on setting a standard for faith and morality around the world.

I also live in a nation in which over 46.3 million citizens (this was the figure at the end of 2008; my guess is that the figure is now closer to 50 million) have no health insurance. I’m one of those citizens. Nearly 50 million citizens of the United States have no access to basic, ongoing health care.

I am shocked, and it grieve me, that this is the case. I have lived in a country (Canada) that provides access to basic, ongoing health care for all citizens. I know from my experience living in that country that, while its system is not perfect, it is vastly superior to the American system of providing health care. It is vastly more ethical than the American system, whose bottom line is the dollar: human worth measured by dollars.

As it appears that our Congress may pass a health care bill that is, in my view, seriously defective—but at least an attempt to address the lack of access to health care by many citizens—I am being bombarded daily by emails from people I know, some of them relatives of mine, who are outraged that health care reform may be enacted. The relatives sending me these emails are people of faith.

I do not understand, frankly, how one can read the gospels and turn one’s back on any brother, sister, neighbor, stranger—anyone at all—in need of medical treatment. I cannot understand reading the nativity stories at Christmas and then scorning attempts to provide health care for all citizens.

And so my Advent remembrance this week: I offer for anyone who wishes to take a look, to reflect, and then to relate who we are today and where we find ourselves today to the story of Jesus’s birth, pictures from the free health care clinics held around the nation this year to demonstrate our country’s need for a better system of health care delivery. I intend to invite those sending me emails to decry health care reform to have a look at the pictures I’ll be uploading on this blog each day this week.

Each of these pictures was taken in the past year at one of the free health care clinics. T he people whose faces you’ll see in these pictures are ordinary American citizens, many of them working citizens whose jobs provide no health care coverage. They are our brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, grandparents.

They are Mary and Joseph seeking a place for Mary to give birth.

The picture for this posting was taken on 15 August in Inglewood, California, at a free clinic that drew thousands.