Excerpted from In Those Days and In These, an Advent Devotional Guide from the NC Council of Churches
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When I was growing up, I, like many children, always looked forward to the annual Christmas pageant at church. It was an opportunity to be an angel, shepherd, camel, or even a king. There were more or less fantastic sets, props, singing and maybe dancing (depending on your denomination). It’s a story with a happy ending and as a child you learn the basics about the Holy Family— they go on a great trip, an angel appears, a baby is born, the Magi come and bring presents, and we all sing Silent Night. The end. However, as an adult, I realize that this birth narrative is not the happy story that I was raised on. This was not a fun vacation for Mary and Joseph, but rather a long, difficult trip forced upon them by the government. Moreover, when they reached their destination, they were not welcome. They were strangers with no one who would show them any kind of hospitality. Although our Christmas pageants portray cute animals to keep Mary company while she gave birth, in reality the birth of Jesus occurred in a setting that was dirty, dark, and lonely.
A similar experience is playing out in the United States today. Immigrants from Latin America are being forced to journey north for the sake of their families and because their own governments cannot guarantee their livelihood or safety. Like the Holy Family, these immigrants often do not receive hospitality in this country; instead they find only hostility. Like Mary and Joseph, many immigrants feel like strangers in their new country and they are forced to live their lives separated from their families and in the shadows.
We live in a time when sixty million people are displaced globally, including more than 10 million Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of immigrant children and families held in detention in the United States — all of whom have fled the violence, crime, and extreme poverty of their home countries. How should we respond to these men, women, and children who come to other countries seeking a better life? As politicians debate immigration and refugee quotas and the need for a more secure border, let us remember that the Holy Family sought refuge and was also turned away. Jesus tells us that a response to the most vulnerable is a response to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). Christ comes to our doorstep in the waves of children and families coming across the border. As Christians we are required to respond with love and compassion rather than fear of scarcity and exclusion of others.
Just as we celebrate the life of Christ and remember it with dignity and respect, so should we respect the children and families who have come to our country for a better life and treat them with benevolence. As we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us also remember that he was a child, born to a vulnerable family in a foreign land, looking for shelter and hospitality. I pray that we all might learn to welcome migrants and refugees who, like the Holy Family so long ago, courageously cross borders in the present day.
Prayer: Compassionate God, make your loving presence felt to refugees and migrants, torn from home, family and everything familiar. Warm, especially, the hearts of the young, the old, and the most vulnerable among them. Help them know that you accompany them as you accompanied Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in their exile to Egypt. Lead refugees and migrants to a new home and a new hope, as you led the Holy Family to their new home in Nazareth. Open our hearts to receive them as our sisters and brothers in whose face we see your son, Jesus. Amen. (Source: Assisting Refugee Resettlement Using Parish Energies; http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/prs/stign/arrupe.html)