If Donald Trump had been Pharaoh of Egypt, the Holy Family never would have escaped from Herod’s persecution. Jews would have been prohibited from entering the country. Christmas features the story of a family from the Middle East leaving a homeland in fear and seeking refuge is a foreign land, just as millions do today.
If you visit Egypt and its ancient Coptic Church, you’ll see images of the Holy Family everywhere: Joseph, Mary — always on a donkey — and the infant Jesus. They are moving, wandering. You’ll find pictures of them passing by the pyramids. Egyptian Christians treasure this story for theirs is the land that offered welcome and hospitality to the Son of God when he was a refugee.
Circumstances beyond their control — initially an emperor’s census requiring citizens to return to home cities — began the migration of Joseph and Mary, and the theme of seeking room for the stranger is there from the start. That’s remembered in the celebration of Las Posadas, stretching over nine days, beginning 400 years ago in Mexico and now observed far beyond, including in Santa Fe, N.M., where I now live. On Dec. 14, a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph will make their way to the Santa Fe Plaza, accompanied by hundreds singing traditional Spanish songs. They ask for hospitality at various locations but are refused, even driven away by a figure portraying the devil; no room for holy refugees here. Finally, they find a place of welcome, as now thousands gathered on the plaza rejoice.
When 31 U.S. governors refuse hospitality to Syrian refugees, they find a contemporary role in this ancient story. They are those who drive humble, desperate refugees away, even with their children, born and unborn. These governors, and presidential candidates echoing such attitudes, have given ISIS a propaganda victory. Their message of “no room” has resounded throughout the Arab world and beyond. On BBC recently, I listened to a Nigerian share how he found these statements so shocking and unthinkable. America’s strongest “weapon” in its confrontation with ISIS and related groups is its reputation as a nation known for welcoming those of all nationalities and religions, providing hope, a voice in a democratic society, and the opportunity to work and prosper. Destroy that, and it doesn’t matter how many drone strikes are approved.
Refugees have become the “canaries in the mineshaft” of the West’s infrastructure of moral values. When met at borders with food or with fences, the fate of refugees becomes a prime indicator of a society’s spiritual maturity, or depravity. That’s no political opinion, but rather a deeply rooted biblical truth. The Old Testament, which we now correctly call the Hebrew Scriptures, enjoin the people of Israel to show hospitality to strangers and foreigners no less than 36 times.
The love of strangers and sojourners is a litmus test of a people’s love for God. Moreover, those extending hospitality receive God’s presence in the process. When Abraham and Sarah welcome the three strangers in Genesis 18: 1-15, the tables get turned. It’s the angelic presence of the Trinity they have unwittingly welcomed into their tent to share food, and they hear the message that they will bear a child. Similarly, the host offering a tired Jewish peasant couple from distant Nazareth a place in the Bethlehem stable ends up, unknowingly, welcoming the birth of God’s Son.
So ancient biblical instructions have a resonance the cuts into the heart of nation’s contemporary debate about refugees: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19: 33-4).
On Christmas Eve, millions will gather in this country’s 350,000 congregations to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But that first silent night, like ours today, took place in a time when people were forced to be on the move, and were subject to persecution.
In many of those thousands of Christmas Eve services, and especially at those in the evangelical tradition, those worshipping will be asked to make room for Jesus in their hearts. And rightly so. But as we do, even again, make that room in our hearts, surely we must make room in our land for today’s persecuted, wandering, holy refugees.