For the holiday, I drove three hours to see Jesus sleeping on a park bench, huddled under a blanket, his pierced feet poking out in the cold.
He lay on his right side, face hidden but for a single eye and the bridge of his nose – a study of the savior cast in bronze, the son of God depicted as a homeless man.
This sculpture arrived last year in Davidson, the college town just north of Charlotte that I can only describe as adorable: its houses with their turrets and dormer windows, its streets with brick sidewalks, its Upper Crust Bar and Social Club serving classic cocktails and its Soda Shop offering a delicious grilled-cheese sandwich with sauteed spinach for $7.99.
Here, on the sidewalk outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, I saw Jesus made shoeless and cold, engaged in an act of illegal slumber. The sight is jarring in every way – first because the Christian Lord appears to be a genuine sleeping vagrant, and second because this portrayal looks nothing like any Jesus I’d seen. No flowing robes. No golden crown and scepter. Just a man and a blanket.
“I think it’s so much more realistic,” said Carole Ann Loebs, a 28-year-old nanny pushing a stroller past this drifter’s bench. “He is the god-man made flesh, and that is how he rolled.”
It’s no surprise that this sculpture, created for the church by Canadian Timothy B. Schmalz, stirred Davidson’s pot, with one passerby reportedly calling police. The idea that the King of Kings would find himself shivering under a rag, needing comfort rather than providing it, sat poorly with some Christians. Still, homeless Jesus statues appeared in Austin and Indianapolis shortly afterward.
“We find great meaning in the Homeless Jesus sculpture at any time of the year, actually,” the Rev. David Buck, rector at St. Alban’s, told me. “If it was bitterly cold outside, we would be offering waterproof boxes of blankets out next to it, for one thing.”
The face of Jesus, I suppose, has more than a little to do with the hand shaping it. I’ve seen him alternately dressed in military garb, bleeding down the forehead, shaded with the dark skin tones of an Ethiopian, blue-eyed and sporting blond locks that look professionally styled. Just last week, researchers released a scientifically-backed drawing that showed Jesus looking like – in the words of the Twitter trolls – Super Mario.
On my trip from Raleigh to Davidson, I saw praises to Jesus given on a gun shop sign outside Asheboro. I saw the Lord rendered in a plastic, part of a Nativity scene on a lawn outside Concord. On many, many drives across Pennsylvania, I have seen shrines built out of tractor tires, encircling Madonna and Child.
But the Homeless Jesus version in Davidson stands as the most moving to me, and I’ve been to both St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and a tent revival in Robeson County. And the reason is written on a plaque next to the sculpture, taken from the book of Matthew: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Buck told me that his church would gladly give homes to Syrian refugees. “How could we not?” he asked. “Given this sculpture?”
I think of the lepers and prostitutes whom Jesus gave comfort. And I think of his words of blessing for the meek and the poor in spirit. And I think, whether it’s heretical or not, that should the son of God appear this holiday, he’ll look less like a conquering king riding a cloud, robes flowing about his stately figure, than as the bent figure on this park bench.