The birth story of Jesus has plenty to offer Christians during Christmastide — stunned shepherds, angelic visitations, mysterious visitors from the East, an inn with no room, and a manger. Even though there’s plenty to love, Christians ought to continue the story to Jesus’ toddler years where a different sort of narrative emerges — one that is decidedly less cozy.
After Jesus’ birth, Matthew tells us that a despot, King Herod, is so threatened by his arrival that he resolves to murder all the infants in the kingdom. Joseph, ever responsive to messages from angels, is forewarned by a divine messenger, fleeing with his family to Egypt. Jesus starts his life as a refugee. It is only after Herod’s death that a new possibility emerges for the holy family to return to their new home in Nazareth.
For Christians, Christmas is a about the incarnation — the mysterious teaching that in Jesus, God came down to earth to dwell not only with people, but as a person. That person was born under the imperial domination of his own leaders and the Roman Empire, which eventually would execute him. More so, it shows us that the very divinity of God resided in a refugee fleeing political violence and oppression.
That is a formidable lesson in a world that seems so determined to close its doors to refugees. President Joe Biden recently restarted the Remain in Mexico program, Polish authorities refused entry to refugees at their border with Belarus, and the European Union cruelly intercepts migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and sends them back to Libya. In each of these cases, the countries in question are sending refugees and migrants back to untenable situations, where they face physical and sexual violence.
More than that, the Gospels reveal that they are not just sending “economic migrants” back to their countries of origin or a third country, they are sending Jesus there too. In a time of year that is so focused on welcoming the Baby Jesus, we ought to also focus on the very real welcome we can offer in the present to refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants.
Too often, Christians have let the Christmas story present us a comfortable narrative about the holidays, but in reality Christmas ought to present us with a stark reminder about how God came into the world 2,000 years ago. That reminder ought to cause us to open our hearts to those in the same situation as Jesus. Otherwise, what’s the point of Christmas? There are plenty of reasons we ought to care for refugees and immigrants in our midst, but the Christmas story ought to be one of them.
This Christmastide, if you have a tradition of reading from Luke or Matthew’s birth narrative, turn the page and take up what happens next. Who knows? You might start to see Jesus in your world, and it might change your heart for good. This time of year, anything can happen.
Michael Woolf serves as senior minister of Lake Street Church of Evanston, an American Baptist Churches USA and Alliance of Baptists congregation in Evanston, Ill. He earned a doctor of theology degree from Harvard Divinity School, where he is currently a postdoctoral fellow. Follow him on Twitter @RevMichaelWoolf.
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