Advent, Day 22: Bus Stop Nativity

LOOK: Bus Stop Nativity by Andrew Gadd

Gadd, Andrew_Bus Stop Nativity
Andrew Gadd (British, 1968–), Bus Stop Nativity, 2008. Oil on canvas, 188 × 122 cm.

Painted by Royal Academy gold medal winner Andrew Gadd, Bus Stop Nativity depicts the Holy Family huddled together at night under a bus shelter, trying to stay warm. Some passersby look on with curiosity—two even kneel down on the snowy sidewalk—while others go about their business with total indifference.

This painting was commissioned by the Church Advertising Network in the UK, now ChurchAds.net, and displayed on posters at over one thousand bus stops in December 2008, printed with the text “Be Part of the Action. Church, 25-12.” (A gentle provocation to attend a Christmas service on December 25.)

Francis Goodwin, the chair of the Church Advertising Network, said, “We are very used to the Renaissance image of the Nativity. But what would it look like if it happened today? Where would it take place? We want to challenge people to make them reassess what the birth of Jesus means to them.”

Bus Stop Nativity identifies Jesus with today’s urban poor. He was born not in a comfortable palace with fine clothes and other material wealth and security, but in vulnerability and need, to working-class parents who were inconveniently out of town at the time of delivery, forced to make do with less-than-ideal accommodations. When it came time for Mary to present a purification offering in the temple forty days after giving birth, she couldn’t afford the requisite lamb, so she brought two turtledoves instead (a provision made in Lev. 12:8). Not only was Jesus not monied; he also spent his early years as a refugee in Egypt, a flight prompted by Herod’s direct threat on his life. With limited resources, his parents had to make a home for him away from home, not knowing for some time when it would be safe to return to Galilee.

That this was Jesus’s family background and experience—that he lived on the margins of society, not at its center—has always been a significant facet of the Incarnation, because it means that God knows bodily what it is to feel want and uncertainty and to be overlooked. When in his adulthood Jesus preached “Blessed are the poor,” he was affirming that God is with those of lower socioeconomic means. He is one of them.

LISTEN: “Hush Child (Get You Through This Silent Night)” from the movie Black Nativity (2013) | Written by Taura Latrice Stinson, Kasi Lemmons, and Taylor Gordon | Performed by Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore, Luke James, and Grace Gibson

Silent night
Holy night
Poverty on the rise
Wealthy reverend in designer clothes
Homeless children with frostbitten toes
Sleeping in the street
Sleeping in the street

I ain’t tryna be philosophical
But it’s not logical
Some folks out here freezing, others chilling like it’s tropical

The indifference is mad crazy
Like poverty’s contagious
My hands are dirty, but I’m still worthy
Step in my shoes and walk in some mercy

They say this is your punishment for such poor judgment
But you must’ve lost your mind
How you gon’ feed it when you barely eating?
Get ready for the welfare line
I ain’t tryna hear it
You make the bed, lay in it
But I’m way too strong for you to break my spirit

Is it me?
Am I the cause of all my mother’s misery?
This cloud of secrecy on my paternity
Did my very birth destroy my whole family?

I’m just a sinner, I know who I am
Just a beginner, I’m not yet a man
Send me a signal, I’ll follow your light
Just help me through this silent night

Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night
Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night

This ain’t living
I got a mouth to feed
But I can’t make these ends meet
Got an eviction notice
But my Lord don’t hear my prayers
I never been this scared
The silence is too loud for me
Life just ain’t fair

Is anyone out there?
Does anyone care?
Is anyone listening?
Is anyone there?
Just let me know that I’m a part of your plan
That you’re watching over and know who I am

From where we are now
How do we find our way?
Alone in the darkness, scared
With no place to stay

Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night
Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night

Hush child, it’ll be alright
We’ll do this together

Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

This song is a dream sequence from the 2013 film Black Nativity, directed by Kasi Lemmons (good soundtrack, cheesy movie). The two characters who initiate the song are Maria (Grace Gibson) and Jo-Jo (Luke James), a homeless couple in New York City expecting their first child, who are caroling door-to-door. Fifteen-year-old Langston (Jacob Latimore), who has been sent to live temporarily with his estranged grandfather while his mom, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), figures out how to make ends meet for the two of them back in Baltimore, interjects with a rap expressing his frustration with economic inequality and the struggle he has seen and lived.  

The pregnant couple sings the refrain, “Hush child . . . ,” to each other and to their unborn child, and Naima sings it to Langston. But in between, all four address God in lament: God, are you there? God, why don’t you fix these inequities? I’m exhausted. Tired of being a have-not and always having to hustle, to no avail. When are you going to provide like you said you would? The night is “silent” because God is not answering, it seems. Still, the characters continue to pray their pain and grasp after hope.

Though Lemmons’s Black Nativity was marketed as being based on Langston Hughes’s 1961 musical of the same name, its only resemblance is that it is a Christmas-themed drama with Black sacred music (only two songs are held in common; most in the movie are contemporary gospel or original hip-hop/R&B). To listen to the original Broadway cast recording of *Hughes’s* Black Nativity on Spotify, click here.

One thought on “Advent, Day 22: Bus Stop Nativity

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