By Steven Homestead
“And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Through these words, God invites us into this season, offering richness and mystery through sign and symbol. In the manger, I find an opening to explore our faith and think about where we can make a space, hold the door open, leave room at the table. As we celebrate and meditate on the incarnation during Advent, we are reminded that Jesus dealt with space in new ways. He gave up his space in Heaven to enter ours. Jesus was born in a manger, a result of there being “no room.” In this I think of hospitality; I think of making room, of holding space for others. As artists, who often work in signs and symbols, we can think of ways that hospitality and space, its emptiness and fullness, is wrapped up with the swaddled baby. Our page might be blank, but can welcome the mark. Through meditating on what these images and symbols mean to us, we can shape a deeper picture of hospitality, the incarnation, and our response.
Growing up, my parents made our house into a home through hospitality, making space for others through a seat at the table, a place on the couch, or an available room. In many ways, our family lived out the Home in our last name Homestead. I remember as a kid, my dad would load us into the station wagon and we’d head out to pick up a carton of ice cream. Then, we’d show up unannounced at the door of a friend’s house to share the spontaneous dessert, as we brought the hospitality and warmth of our home to friends and neighbors. Even now, my parents have extended this hospitality to open their house to help Haitian refugees. This environment and upbringing helped shape my personal culture of hospitality.
Along with home being in my name, homes and hospitality go hand in hand for me. It’s no wonder that “home” has been an important part of my work as an artist. I’ve created several projects and pieces where the idea or symbolic shape of a house/home have been a focal point. In one recent project, I created the shape of a house out of the negative space formed by hands in prayer. So what does it mean to make a home in the negative space? And how does this link to hospitality?
Let’s think of negative space, that space around. It can be the air around a sculpture, the unmarked areas on a sketched page, the silent pauses in music. It can be the outside, the contrasting, the opposite. Negative space in this way helps to define things. Negative space is a lack that supports the abundant.
When I think of negative space, my mind goes to M. C. Escher and his graphic art that plays with positive and negative space in unique tessellations. As a kid, I was fascinated with how he turned a flock of birds into a school of fish, how blank space melted into rows of knights on horses, or how agrarian fields gave rise to flying geese, night, and day. In the hands of Escher, negative space becomes the thing itself. Escher invites the negative space into his work in a way that is powerful. And in this, I find something for us to meditate on and incorporate in our lives.
As I think about how to create hospitality, I see that it requires us to leave our homes, to go out, either physically or through an extension. A call, a text, an invite—these help us foster hospitality. Hospitality needs these extensions for people to be welcomed in. Hospitality means others enter our space. And something must leave our space to help us make that happen. So hospitality requires us to go out into the negative space. We make room for others in this way. We invite others to take up space, let them know they are wanted, to be part of an experience in some space. In this, Jesus can be our model.
Jesus left his home to enter ours, not only living among us, but as us. His life reveals to us how to make a home in the negative space. Jesus’ coming, considers just such a contrast. He left his home to enter ours. He filled up his human vessel so that he could create the room, the emptiness that would ultimately support us. Think of his incarnation and life in resonance with this. Or consider his life paired with the words of Lao Tzu:
The most yielding thing in the world
Will overcome the most rigid
The most empty thing in the world
Will overcome the most full
This emptiness—this Jesus and negative space—is also what we find when St. Paul writes, “He emptied himself and became nothing.” What an amazing and profound thought, that he “who fills everything in every way” emptied himself! He created negative space in his being to both fully resonate with and make room for us. And that is what we are called to do, as Mary did at the incarnation. She allowed her emptiness to become his fullness. She accepted the virgin emptiness of her womb to become full with the life of God. We too can let our emptiness become his fullness.
And we can also do this for others, a consistent theme of our inclusive God throughout history. My piece A House for All takes on inclusion and negative space inspired by God’s words from Isaiah: “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations/people.” I created a window to show this through different hands, each representing not only a different type of prayer, but also drawn from the hands of people in my community of different ethnic and national backgrounds, genders, and ages. The hands symbolize the diversity that God looks for, the inclusion that he desires, the space He wants to make for everyone. And as the pieces visually represents, it is only in the presence of all of the hands, next to, and with the others, that the shape of a house is formed. Only when all the hands are included do we make God’s fullest home.
We form hospitality through making the empty space for others. Through inclusion and invitation, we make room in the negative space. And we also form hospitality by going out into the negative space, when we are actively reaching out to the hands around us. If my invitation doesn’t extend beyond my windows, my doors, my walls, you won’t know you are wanted and welcomed. I must extend my hand out beyond my space to invite you, extend my “welcome” to you.
This extension of welcoming is powerfully expressed as the prodigal son returns home. His father meets him in the field, even running toward him! The father comes to him outside of the house, not just standing, but moving further into its negative space. So, the “home” the son returns to first, is the embrace of his father—a welcome in the fields, not the house. And in this, there is the final lesson. We make homes through our welcoming hospitality no matter where we are.
So wherever you reach out to invite others around you, you are like the father embracing the son in the field, you are like Mary welcoming the life of God, you are like Jesus leaving heaven for earth and being found in the manger. Yes, let us be found making home in the negative space.
Artist and composer Steven Homestead brings genre-spanning creativity to life, whether composing music, incarnating large-scale art projects, or leading generative events. Steven’s creative work seeks to promote honor, give voice, share wonder, and develop unity. Subscribe to his newsletter at stevenhomestead.com/connect and follow him on Instagram @scubahomie.