JESUS OF Nazareth was born a displaced person. As the writer Garry Wills relates it: “He comes from a despised city and region. Yet he cannot be allowed a peaceful birth in that backwater. His parents are displaced by decree of an occupying power that rules his people. For the imperial census to be taken, Joseph his father must return to his place of birth. . . . Joseph does not even have relatives left in his native town, people with whom he can stay. He seeks shelter in an inn, already crowded with people taken away from their own homes and lives. Because of this influx of strangers, he is turned away. There is no bed left, even for a woman far advanced in pregnancy. She must deliver her child in a barn, where the child is laid in a hay trough.” Soon afterward, the infant and his family become fugitives from King Herod as he seeks out the child he fears will one day replace him on the throne. And so it went.
Long ago, John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But well before that, governments were showing their ability to do much the same thing: to bring either peace, order and a measure of prosperity to their people or to create a place where destruction, hunger and hopelessness drive many into the deserts and overseas.
This Christmas there are many such people fleeing violence, living hand-to-mouth, without warmth or medical help or food, desperately seeking refuge wherever they can find it for themselves and their children. In prosperous Europe, the most encouraging response has come from Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, the conscience-driven leader of a nation that, three-quarters of a century ago, created its own version of hell on Earth. But this openness to the dispossessed and the desperate has not been entirely matched in other parts of Europe or even remotely so in our own country. In part this is because of fears about possible violence by some small number of the refugees and in part because of anxiety about the burden they might place on Western societies. As always, domestic politics has played a role for better and worse — here and in Germany and elsewhere.
Christmas has become an almost universal holiday, celebrated, observed or at least tacitly acknowledged as a festive occasion even by peoples who have no history of Christianity. And, indeed, many of the values of that faith are universal, if sometimes honored only in the breach. But the word “Christian” is often misused in our times, in a way that implies some allegiance to a particular political party, economic doctrine or set of moral strictures that are not representative of large numbers of true Christians. (The media are often complicit in this confusion.) There is a broader concept of the term, one that is succinct, relevant and all but imperative in this season when we face a humanitarian crisis that tests our character and our compassion. It comes from the Gospel of Matthew and is stated as an ideal voiced by Jesus:
“I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you game me drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”