Ragamuffin Glory


My husband and I wove through the sleepy streets of Denver at 6am, heading to the airport for an early flight after staying in a hotel overnight. He drove, I sipped home roasted coffee from a ceramic travel mug, and stared out at the skyscrapers, the pink sky, the lights. I noticed small mounds of clothing piled on the sidewalk next to towering buildings. One shook and I realized there was a human being huddled there.

Having spent nearly a decade of my life in the city of Chicago, I’m no stranger to seeing homelessness, but after the past three years of living sequestered in a suburb in northern Colorado, the searing shock of the dehumanizing forces of poverty burned my senses back into blisters. There were people in those heaps. Human beings. These were souls with fingers and toes, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, thumping hearts and reasoning minds. And they were sleeping on the sidewalk in 30 degrees.

The humble circumstances triggered a memory of a shepherd I met once. During the five years I lived in northwest China, I’d often jog past the city limits into the countryside, finding footpaths to tread into shallow valleys and narrow ravines. Matted sheep loitered in one depression and the shepherd, an elderly woman, squatted under a tree. I slowed to a walk, so as not to startle her. I smiled, she stared.

“Are you a foreigner?” she asked in Chinese and I noticed the dingy grey clothing, the black dirt caked under her fingernails, the tangled hair. I answered that I was an American. And then she asked me a question so ordinary I could have been speaking with a high class woman in front of a Macy’s department store.

“Do you know what time it is?” she asked. So normal, so every day, so human.

I passed her again another day, but this time I had my camera with me. “Do you mind if I take your picture?” I asked her. She agreed and I promised to return another day with the photo. Weeks later, I ventured back to the valley and spotted the mangy sheep, and soon after, the shepherdess. I handed her the glossy picture and she took it, curious. Sitting on a rock, she peered at her own image—possibly the first photo she had ever seen of herself—and giggled in delight. I eventually left her there, glancing back over my shoulder every once in a while, smiling to myself as she rocked herself back and forth, now to the rhythm of rollicking laughter.

Apart from the dizzying idea that God entered the world as a vulnerable baby named “Immanuel–God with us,” the shepherds are my favorite aspect of the Christmas story. Like my Chinese shepherdess acquaintance, I imagine they, too, watched the strolling, lollygagging sheep sleeping, grazing and lazing about the valley. The filthy, uneducated shepherds were the first to hear the good news, the first to know God had burst through time and space to be clothed in the flesh of a human being. And if a Chinese woman in 2007 who had never even seen a photo of herself laughed at the audacity of holding her own image in her hand, how much more would the shepherds of 2,000 years ago have trembled in fear at a sky sliced with the light and flame of God’s glory? Perhaps God likes to share sacred and wild wonder with those most likely to notice it.

In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey talks about a poem by W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” commenting that “In Auden’s poem the wise men proclaim, ‘O here and now our endless journey stops.’ The shepherds say, ‘O here and now our endless journey starts’” (37). Starting with nothing, the news of the birth of Jesus was everything.

The shepherds remind me that the divine chose to announce the new king to ordinary ruffians, rag-tag ragamuffins, and society’s invisible people. Maybe when God comes again, the sky will flood with light above the shivering mounds of clothing and blankets piled on our urban streets. Perhaps God’s glory shines there in the squalor even now, announcing the presence of a God who transcends social class, time and space to be with us.