Along with thousands of others Winnipeggers, I rely on the bus to get around. More often than not, the ride is pleasant enough. Fellow passengers keep to themselves, are polite if interaction is required, give up their seats when needed – in short, they follow the rules that make sharing a small, crowded, space with strangers comfortable. There is a small subset of bus users, however, whose conduct can alter the atmosphere for everyone around them.
Rightly or wrongly, most people have a private face and a public face. There are certain kinds of behaviour and certain types of conversation that are understood to be for public spaces. Boundaries exist that are not usually crossed. Care is taken to protect what is too personal to share with strangers. Of course, not everyone has the same idea of where the social boundaries lie and a few, for whatever reason, have difficulty discerning any boundaries at all. We have probably all experienced the awkwardness and discomfort of hearing “too much information.”
Not long ago, for example, I found myself sitting near a man who was loudly proclaiming a very personal story of injustice and unfair treatment, of being cheated and deceived. This story, audible to everyone nearby, was directed at a woman, clearly a stranger, sitting across from him. The woman showed no sign she was aware of the man at all. Other passengers around them carefully avoided eye contact, not wanting to give the impression that they might listen to his complaints if she would not. The man himself seemed not to see the discomfort all around him.
Some riders, like this man, bring their pain or sense of injustice onto the bus with them. Others bring their loneliness, pouring out the details of their lives to whoever will listen. Still others step on the bus reeking with addiction or hostility, bringing an air of unpredictability or even danger with them. Whatever the circumstances, these strangers on the bus are unable to maintain a public face and mask their need. Often, they challenge and unsettle us as they intrude upon our space, demanding some type of response. We find we don’t know how to respond, or even if we should.
Is it possible that these fellow travellers, precisely because they challenge and unsettle, also help us perceive something about God? Is there an epiphany waiting for us in the stranger on the bus?
As we celebrate the Epiphany we are invited into a vision of God’s glory, the divine appearance. With the wise men, we experience awe at the revealed divinity of the Christ child. We kneel in homage, filled with humble gratitude at God’s inclusion of the nations in God’s mighty acts of salvation. But the definition of epiphany includes more than divine appearance. There is also sudden perception or illuminating discovery – discovery that often comes to us in situations that challenge and unsettle and demand a response from us.
A number of years ago, a popular song asked the question “What if God was one of us?” The song speaks of the awe-generating nature of divine appearance. Would we dare to call God by name, it asks, if we found ourselves face to face with his glory? Would we even want to see that glory, if seeing meant that we would have no choice but to believe?
As Christians, we say with confidence that God is, in fact, one of us and, in being one of us, God identifies with the poor, the vulnerable, and the broken. In his ministry, Jesus identified himself with the people whose neediness challenged and unsettled those around him. Today, Jesus calls us to see him in the poor and the vulnerable, in the ones among us who cannot hide their neediness, in the stranger on the bus. He calls us, not to avoid, but to look directly at the one who unsettles us, to see his or her humanity, and to respond to whatever need we find there. It is, finally, in the responding, in acts of caring for the least of these in God’s family, that we will see Jesus himself.