Each year, we hear about the “War on Christmas,” whether it’s the pearl clutching upon hearing “Happy Holidays,” media frenzy over Starbucks cups with insufficient tinsel or, this year, a man who fought with his homeowner’s association over his right to bedeck his house in enough holiday lights that it might be seen from space. All this faux-outrage shares one thing in common: It doesn’t have anything to do with the biblical Christmas.
The scriptural nativity is remarkably unconcerned with which words people use to celebrate December, doesn’t even mention cup-decorating etiquette, and features a manger sadly deficient in seasonal lighting (majestic star notwithstanding). Instead, we read about Christ’s incarnation among the poor and vulnerable, the political persecution of his family, and Mary and Joseph’s heart-wrenching choice to flee their country to protect their newborn child (Matthew 2:13-14). Christmas is a celebration of God’s presence in and among the oppressed — a savior who does not enter the world as a conquering hero but as a refugee. With this in mind, it is inescapable to notice that our country is presently waging a quite-literal “War on Christmas.”
On Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents launched tear gas at parents and children seeking asylum. Far from an isolated incident, this is just the latest outrage in ongoing military escalation. On Oct. 25, responding to news of a refugee exodus from Honduras and Guatemala, the president ordered hundreds of troops deployed to the border. Throughout the midterm elections, he repeatedly called the group of asylum seekers an “invasion,” and promised to do whatever he could to fight it. On Nov. 19, he tweeted a photo of razor wire encasing the border fence. Meanwhile, 171 children remain separated from their parents. These abuses represent ongoing, sustained military response against the holy family’s modern-day analogues, treating the sojourners as if they were enemy combatants, the manger’s occupant fixed squarely in their crosshairs.
The particularities of Jesus’ birth aren’t the only reason we should see him in eyes that blink back poisonous gas — in Matthew 25 he flat-out tells us this is true:
'I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
If we take Christ’s own words seriously, we must grapple with the fact that, last weekend, we tear-gassed Jesus. We put razor wire on a fence to keep Jesus from finding safety. This summer, we tore Jesus from Mary and Joseph and locked him in a cage. But, again, if we look to scripture, we find that this “War on Christmas” isn’t new. Herod began the inaugural War on Christmas when he recognized the threat that Christ posed to his own unjust rule. Authoritarian leaders have always sought to demonstrate strength through enacting violence against the vulnerable.
However, if Christmas is truly about Immanuel, God-with-us, then there is no question that abuse of migrants violates Christmas at its core — that our nation’s actions defy that very same God. Exhortations to welcome others are the most-repeated command in scripture. If we are to make room for God to dwell in and among us, we must begin by honoring the divine spark we find in one another, not by emulating Herod. At a time when so many preach hate and fear, we must remember the angel’s yuletide words: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news.” Refugees are not a threat to be feared; they are a blessing we are all called to embrace. They are made in the image of God, just as surely as anyone else — to honor and celebrate God’s birth we must open our doors to God when God knocks, seeking shelter.
We must never view Christmas as if it were simply about Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago. If we do, then Christmas becomes a mere historic relic — a nice story we tell when the weather gets cold, but one that makes no demands about how we live. Make no mistake: This is the Christmas that President Trump and his enablers would prefer we celebrate — one that is more concerned with lights, presents, and seasons’ greetings than a baby born under a king who sought to kill him, whose parents sought refuge in a neighboring land. However, that will never be God’s Christmas, only a hollow facsimile.
The real Christmas is under attack. God waits for our response.