The nativity is the most widely known story in the world. Millions of people celebrate it by displaying small figurines of Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, some shepherds, three wise men, and a collection of animals. I saw this week a nativity featuring a cat!
Those three wise men—and who knows now many there were—were certainly not at the manger with the shepherds and when they left—whenever that was—they changed course to avoid danger. Then an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to flee because their lives were also in danger.
In this way, the holy family joined that perennial band of people looking for a better place. Then and now, millions of people are fleeing—poverty, danger, death, violence, loss, loneliness, and disease.
COVID has made it more difficult. The pandemic has closed a lot of borders and made people less receptive to those on the run, on the move, on the road, away from home.
My perception of such people was changed dramatically when as a young minister I took the pastorate of a church in Pittsburgh. It was composed almost entirely of transplanted people—from every region of the country and several continents. They came to that great city to work for the corporations, like Westinghouse, U S Steel, Alcoa, H. J. Heinz, Gulf Oil, and, yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many of them worked in a transfer culture; one man called me on Saturday night, “Pastor, I have good news and bad news. We are joining the church tomorrow, but I am being transferred in six months!”
I became attentive to the needs and desires of people on the move, away from home. And I began to read the Bible afresh. I found there a collection of stories of people on the move and away from home. From Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, and Joseph in Genesis to Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, and John on the Isle of Patmos in the Christian literature. In fact, most of the encounters with God described in the Bible happened to people on the road, away from home. And we are all the beneficiaries!
This openness to God while away from home adds an urgent dimension to our welcome to the stranger. Perhaps our home, our church, our community has been appointed as the place of a life-changing encounter with the Almighty by somebody on the move.
This is what I now see as I watch Mary and Joseph take their baby Jesus and flee across the desert and into Egypt. They are looking for peace, opportunity, safety, prosperity, dignity, a place to be the people God has called them to be. And if they show up on my street, I want to receive them as children of God, as agents of the Spirit, indeed, as Jesus himself.
Which is why I am grieved by an escalation of anti-stranger rhetoric—the immigrant, the refugee, the student, the soldier, the migrant worker, the foreigner, the executive taking a transfer, or the desperate parent looking to save small children. In our own country, this trend will climax in the new federal regulations set to take effect January 5, making asylum almost impossible.
Into this intersection of care for the other and fear of the other comes the word of the most famous and influential of all Christians in the world today, Francis, bishop of Rome and, it seems, pastor to the world. In his new book Let Us Dream he writes:
The heart of Christianity is God’s love for all peoples and our love for our neighbors, especially those in need. To reject a struggling migrant, whatever his or her religious belief, out of fear of diluting a ‘Christian culture’ is grotesquely to mispresent both Christian and culture. Migration is not a threat to Christianity …. To promote the gospel and not welcome the strangers in need, nor affirm their humanity as children of God, is to seek to encourage a culture that is Christian in name only, emptied of all that makes it distinctive.
This culture that he describes as Christian is not only a matter of personal disposition, of my willingness to accommodate the refugee, the migrant, and the stranger. It is also a matter of public policy, of state and federal budgets, of congregational and denominational priorities. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are fleeing today, and they are looking to us, Christians in America, to see and hear them, to welcome them into our country, and to honor them in our communities and churches.
That is what it means to keep Christ in Christmas. Or so it seems to me.