AJ had been off death row for 3 months. Wrongfully accused and imprisoned, he was eventually exonerated through the efforts of his public defender.
And he still couldn’t get a job.
Branded with his background, a glaring gap of work on his resume, and, yes, a few non-violent drug offenses in his less-than-wise, post-adolescent years, any interviews (if he ever was called in) screeched to a standstill when his “incarceration” came up.
“Thanks for your time. We will call you.” If he heard that phrase one more time, he might burst a capillary. And why couldn’t they at least look him in the eyes when they said it? It was enough to drive a man to rage, or despair.
Or to a parking lot to sell drugs.
“Nothing too hard, nothing that will kill anyone,” AJ said to himself over and over. Just enough to make ends meet. But it was December, a cold one, and that heating bill needed to be paid. And he had Jordan to think about. He pulled his ragged coat a little tighter around himself as he crossed another street. Passing under streetlamps, just outside the city, he found The Spot.
A huddle of guys, some he knew well, some he didn’t. Two cars, one with muffled bass and rhythm thumping through the closed windows. Despite his longing for a different life, he was glad to see his friends, some of them in remarkably similar situations. But they never talked about that.
“Hey AJ,” Mark grinned at him, “you made it. The cold slow you down?” His right hand raised, AJ smirked and they shook, embraced in a quick half-hug.
“Yeah it’s bitter tonight,” AJ admitted. “Let’s get this done so I can get home.”
“Man, you guys were right, he doesn’t like to waste time,” said one of the men AJ had never seen before.
“Here you go,” Mark said, cutting any responses to the other guy off. He slipped him a wad of bills, AJ handed him a small bag. AJ shuddered a bit as he pocketed the money, from the cold. Possibly.
“Much as I would love to stand here, shivering at midnight, I got a kid to get home to.” AJ turned around.
That’s when the spotlight caught him.
It was brighter than any light he had seen. Spots swam around the edges of his field of vision, and he couldn’t help but stop moving, shut his eyes, and drop to his face on the pavement.
The guys behind him were scattering, their voices seemed so far away. “What the….” “Did he bring the cops?” “How didn’t we hear them!?” “What is going on??”
In his stunned silence, AJ choked back a sob. He made it three months on the outside. Three months. Jordan would wake up to an empty apartment. His boy would wake up to Dad in a cell. Again. Was Jordan’s life ruined? Was his own? He couldn’t face the enormity of these questions. A few tears slid out of his closed eyes, and the frantic mutterings of his friends were cut off by a loud voice.
The cop was using a megaphone, obviously, but it somehow sounded unlike any that AJ had heard before. Not tinny. More real.
“GET UP, ALL OF YOU”
So AJ wasn’t the only one who threw himself down without thinking. He recovered some semblance of dignity on realizing this. But even rising to his knees, he couldn’t stand fully, and he certainly couldn’t look up. The light was just too harsh.
“What do you want…..we aren’t…..” Mark’s strangled whisper was interrupted by the voice.
“THERE IS A MEETING HAPPENING NEARBY, YOU WILL WANT TO BE THERE”
He was telling them about a meeting?? Weren’t they being arrested?
“WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE, WHAT YOU ARE DOING”
This only increased AJ’s confusion. If that was possibly true, then everything made less sense. There had to be a massive mistake.
“AND YOUR LIVES ARE ABOUT TO CHANGE”
At this, a few more spotlights clicked on. AJ could feel both the brightness and the heat intensify. A different voice came from behind him, almost above him.
“AT THIS GATHERING IS ONE WHO WILL BRING PEACE TO YOU, TO THIS CITY, HE HOLDS THE POWER TO UNDO AND REMAKE THIS GOVERNMENT”
Was some political revolution happening? In the middle of the night, in December? Here?? And why in the world would police come at night, just to announce this to them? Nothing was making sense.
“AND HE HOLDS NO ILL WILL TOWARDS YOU, HE REQUESTS YOUR PRESENCE IMMEDIATELY”
Another possible explanation was that this was all a crazy dream. AJ was seriously starting to wonder if he had actually ever left his bed. And it got weirder. Multiple voices began speaking simultaneously. It was eerie, terrifying, but their tone was almost comforting. No cops that AJ ever interacted with behaved like this. But if they weren’t police, who were they?
“YOU WILL FIND THEM IN THE BASEMENT OF A NEARBY APARTMENT BUILDING, WARMING THEMSELVES BY THE FURNACE, LOOK FOR OUR LIGHT”
Ok, these most definitely weren’t cops. Maybe AJ wouldn’t be trying to sleep in a cell tonight, after all.
“YOU ARE THE FIRST TO KNOW ABOUT THIS, TAKE HEART AND TELL OTHERS, GRACE AND PEACE TO YOU”
The spotlights, all of them, immediately clicked off. The darkness, in comparison, was suffocating. AJ’s mind was reeling. Minutes of silence dragged by, and as he slowly stood up, he was not surprised to see that no one else had left either. The silence somehow felt sacred, and none of them wanted to ruin it. Eventually, AJ looked into Mark’s eyes.
“I guess I will be staying out a bit longer tonight, after all.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Mark’s mouth as he nodded back. They looked around the circle, and without exchanging any more words, every man turned and walked towards the nearest high-rise apartment building, wondering what they would find in the basement.
This scene is an imaginative reconstruction of Luke 2.8-20, in which angels appear to shepherds outside Bethlehem, announcing the birth of Christ. Shepherds were outcasts, overlooked, possibly criminals, and definitely socially-marginalized people in the ancient world, but our modern imagination has “cleaned” them up. In our art, songs, and Christmas pageants, the shepherds are gentle, pastoral, tidy characters. I wanted to offer a corrective to this, by imagining God’s incarnation announcement being given to socially-marginalized men in our setting today. One of the (many) scandals of the incarnation is the fact that shepherds were first trusted with the news. This Christmas, remember not only that God came to us in Jesus, but the way in which that happened. Through marginal people who were overjoyed and overwhelmed to be the bearers of the world’s greatest news. Peace and Goodwill towards Men.