Epiphany away from home
A Public Spaces blog post
I didn’t tell you this, but while I took those pics for my pie shop post two weeks ago, a woman got up from the doorway of the bike shop and started to fold her bedding. We were the only ones around. It was almost dawn, the bike and pie shops adjoin, and I guess it was time for her to go.
Then last week, walking down the same strip, I saw a handprinted note on the bike shop door: the shop was closed, thanks everyone. All the bikes were gone. How had I missed that?
I remembered the proprietor and his longtime assistant telling me, during our last couple of repairs, how bad sales had been. Demand was incredible during the pandemic, but they couldn’t find enough bikes. Then the pandemic cooled and the bikes showed up, but not enough people wanted them. This extraordinary high and low has been tough on all bike shops, they said.
I took a picture of the woman when I first saw her. I was across the street then, and she was just waking up. Today I studied the photo for the first time: the shop behind her was already empty and the scrawled sign was there. Why didn’t I look at what I was about to photograph? Why didn’t I look at the photo later when I wrote the pie store post?
I think I got her moving when I walked to her side of the street and started taking photos of the pie place. I avoided eye contact with her. I guess I felt like people make their beds at home, and I wanted to give her some privacy. But I don’t know. She made it public space by living a public question: why was a citizen, a child of God, sleeping on the sidewalk?
Why else would I have taken that photo I didn’t want to see?
I think there have been things I haven’t wanted to see in my devotional reading. Up until recently, I read the first two chapters of Matthew as proof texts. Jesus fulfills all of these prophecies about where the Messiah would come from—Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth—by moving a lot in his first years. Matthew develops these indecipherable prophecies like photo negatives.
But when I read the Epiphany story this morning, I find a family of political refugees in Egypt. And even before the Magi and Herod's massacre, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are far from home. Luke mentions more political trouble—a census for taxes that leads to a violently suppressed revolt1 and lands Jesus in a Bethlehem trough.
On my predawn walk to school, someone (I think!) bundled at a door like an abandoned baby.
Matthew’s opening genealogy used to impress me with its apparent numerology: three times fourteen generations from Abraham to Messiah. More proof text. Now I read the genealogy’s explicit reference to only its high and its low—to King David’s reign and to Israel’s exile—as setting the table for the story’s prophecy about humble Bethlehem giving birth to another king, a king who almost immediately goes into exile.
Today, Matthew’s Old Testament verses read like hope. God knew that an empire would force Jesus’s parents to travel to Bethlehem. God knew an empire’s surrogate would make them and Jesus exiles in Egypt. These prophecies remind me of my favorite “God knew”: God knew Israel itself would be an exile in Egypt generation after generation, for four hundred years.2 Rabbi Everett Fox provides my favorite translation:
It was, many years later,
the king of Egypt died.
The Children of Israel groaned from the servitude,
and they cried out;
and their cry-for-help went up to God, from the servitude.
God hearkened to their moaning,
God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov,
God saw the children of Israel,
I’m not much on the words “homeless” or “homelessness.” They create distinctions among people who, for different reasons, are long and far from home.
Labels also make things manageable. We have shelters. Thursday night we went to one. We handed out food others had cooked, and we got all the thanks. We didn’t even have to clean up. We’ll go again.
One night this past week, we saw another woman sleeping, this time in the entrance to our apartment building’s retail parking. The retail’s not in yet, so the gate to get under the building is always closed. If you sleep there, you won’t get hit.
Maybe it’s easier to sleep knowing the place you lay your head has a past or a future, but nothing at present. Public space is a wrinkle in time.
The photo from across the street with the woman blurred.
See Gamaliel’s recap of the census, the revolt, and the empire’s response in Acts 5:37.
Fox, Five Books of Moses, 267 (Exodus 2:23-25).