Advent Calendar Day 24: The Ghost of Tom Joad

So here we are, on the night before the day.  It’s cold, maybe, up in the hills outside of town, and lonely for the handful of roughnecks sitting around a campfire passing a bottle, hoping no sheep stray tonight.  The streets are crowded, the inns are crowded, the bars are going to be crowded too, and tempers fray some and there’s quiet grumbling about invasive bureaucracy out of earshot of any occupying troops, who are doubtless doing their own grumbling about being stuck out here in one of farthest-flung and least-hospitable backwaters in the Empire, far from the sights and sounds and smells of home.  Even a woman about to give birth right there in an innkeeper’s courtyard can’t get a room or a bed on a night like this.  In Bethlehem tonight, everyone is a stranger, even if your bloodline runs right through the great warrior-bard himself, and the descendants of the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah make do with what they have, which is a feeding trough out of the way.  This night, the world isn’t much different than it was in the Hoovervilles John Steinbeck painted in The Grapes of Wrath, and it isn’t much different than it is right now.

This is where the miracle happens, and that’s not by chance.  No, this universe is a chaotic one as far as anyone can see, unfolding as it seems according to a series of rules we’ve only just begun to try and understand, but by my faith this is also a universe given shape by stories, and this is one of the dramatic climaxes of the story of stories.  If the Storyteller were a hack, this occasion would be marked by explosions and pomp and elephants and circumstance and marble backdrops and excess; a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle.

God knows there’s a time and a place for that kind of thing.  He also knows there’s a time for smaller and more intimate glories.

This story’s climax has a young couple holding their newborn son close.  A handful of ranchers seeing something beyond them, something too wonderful for understanding, in the face of an infant.  A young mother storing these things in her heart.  These are the kinds of moments John Steinbeck had a mastery of, simple joys and simple hardships of simple people.  Like any master, he came close to capturing the fire with which the Almighty imbues the thing itself.

Maybe there’ll come a time when this mother has to weep for this child, when the holders of temporal power become too scared to do anything but rip him open.  Maybe, as she stands there on Skull Hill watching the blood drip from his body and into the dead earth, she thinks back to the night she first held him in her arms.  Likely she doesn’t understand, because how can she, how can anyone?  But she endures, because she’s a tough woman from tough stock, born to toil and hardship, and she knows at least part of how special her boy is.  And three days later, maybe it won’t be that overwhelming a surprise when she sees his tomb standing empty.

Steinbeck surely had the Galilean carpenter and his mother in mind when he wrote Tom Joad and his mother, saying their goodbyes in the California night.

“Then I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

Hear the Word of the Lord God, oh Israel, because this promise is made by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as well.  So if you want to look for the Nazarene today, if you want to catch a glimpse of the King and Kings, Lord of Lords, Fruit of the Seed of David, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,then you’d best look for him in places like these, because you’ll find him, with his callused hands and his scarred wrists, standing right beside the ghost of old Tom Joad.

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One Response to “Advent Calendar Day 24: The Ghost of Tom Joad”

  1. sophiashinies Says:

    Brad, your Advent calendar really helped me through a stressful Advent and Christmas season this year. You have a knack for translating the Gospel into Pioneer and Cowboy, and this year that was just what I needed to hear.

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