FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The grizzly story we know as the “Slaughter of the Innocents” and the flight of the Holy Family from that terror into Egypt reads very much like the stories of thousands of refugee families fleeing gang violence, starvation and war in Central and South America, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Burma and many other places around the globe. As we don’t read that Mary and Joseph were detained at the Egyptian border, the family separated or the Christ child confiscated and caged, we can presume that the imperial authorities regulating borders back in the 1st Century were a tad more humane than our own U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, affectionately known as “ICE.” This is the same border to which Abraham and Sarah came fleeing famine and starvation in Canaan some four millennia earlier and felt compelled to trade sexual favors for passage. Centuries later, Jacob and his family came as refugees to Egypt and then fled as refugees four centuries later. The people of Israel knew very well what it was like having to flee from home to a foreign land. They knew what it was like to live as foreigners in a land where they were hated, feared and persecuted. It is for this reason that as Israel established itself as a people in the land God had given them, the people were strictly ordered: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 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: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34.
As I write these lines, hundreds of asylum seekers, including around 200 young children are sleeping in the open near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This is due to policies under U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at reducing the number of new arrivals in the United States. This has caused a backlog as United States border officials limit the number of asylum cases they receive at ports of entry each day. Consequently, tens of thousands of mainly Central American asylum seekers live for months in Mexico as they await court dates or interviews with border officials.
As serious as this humanitarian crisis is, it pales in comparison with the horrendous suffering resulting from migrant refugee waves within and out of Africa, Asia and South America. Moreover, this too is but a foretaste of the global refugee movements that will surely be triggered by floods, famines and epidemics resulting from climate change. Soon, the industrialized nations will be faced with a stark choice: 1) meet the refugee crisis with substantial aid for those areas worst affected, open borders to resettle displaced persons and sacrifice substantially to rebuild a more just and sustainable order; or 2) fortify their borders and use all necessary means to preserve their positions of wealth, power and privilege. The current administration has clearly chosen the second path. But disciples of Jesus know that salvation lies in the first.
My biggest fear is that one day my church, which has issued apologies for its participation in our country’s slave trade, for its involvement in the genocide of America’s first nations, for its silence and complicity in the murder of six million Jews will someday be issuing an apology for its failure to stand with refugees turned away at numerous borders and allowed to die. For once, I hope the church recognizes Jesus in the hungry, poor and desperate stranger in front of its face rather than having to apologize for making that recognition only a century later. There are some hopeful signs. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is currently suing the Trump administration over its unlawful executive orders severely limiting refugee resettlement within our borders. Congregations of all Christian traditions around the country are sheltering refugee families from deportation. Armies of disciples are at our border even now assisting refugees with nutritional support, medical care and legal representation. It is my Advent prayer that perhaps this time, the Church of Jesus Christ will be standing with Jesus, the child of refugees fleeing for their lives in search of a safe haven.
Here’s a poem by Robert Southwell, S.J. capturing this very hope:
The Burning Babe
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Robert Southwell (1561–1595) was an English Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit Order and a poet, hymnodist. He served the Roman See as a clandestine missionary in post-Reformation England. Southwell was arrested and imprisoned in 1592 and after being tortured and interrogated by the authorities, he was tried and convicted of high treason for his links to the Roman Catholic Church. He was executed in February of 1595 by hanging., Southwell was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. You can read more about Robert Southwell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.