A migrant is born
We have, over the centuries, done a great disservice to the Biblical challenge of Christmas. We have sadly reduced it to shiny tinsel, Christmas trees, strings of fairy lights and mince pies. All of which are fine in their own way but all of which also blunt us to the sharp challenge of the first Christmas and the politics that that commits us to. This is true for the poor, for the marginalised, for the peoples whose stories and suffering lie hidden, far removed from the public eye and therefore seldom the discussion point of public life. It is true of all of those invisible populations. It is especially true of those who are on the move or whose lives are linked to people on the move.
The first Christmas was marked by a set of parents having to move from their home area to a distant place in order to comply with a political edict. They had to make a journey through territory that was well known for its multiple dangers especially the ever present threat of bandits. They could not find accommodation once they arrived in Bethlehem. They had to depend on the kindness of a stranger to eventually locate (unsuitable) accommodation in an ‘out-house’. Not much later as political jealousies and court intrigues deepened and suspicions arose, the family had to flee and find their way to a foreign country with all the dangers and vulnerabilities that involved. They crossed unknown territory as many still do to this day to escape the same kinds of fatal abusive threats. Those are the contours of the first Christmas. There is hardly a migrant or refugee who has not walked the same path, followed the same contours and lived with the same uncertainties. The Christmas story is their story. Christmas is thus for refugees and migrants a time of deep solidarity. The most fundamental point is that despite the many adversities, the Holy Family came through those adverse situations. Just as many people on the move do. They like Mary and Joseph develop inner agency to deal with and overcome their difficulties. In doing so, something new is born.
It’s important to note the back story. Stepping back into the earlier part of the story, when the Angel Gabriel first announced Jesus’ birth to Mary, the Angel was careful to add to the greeting, the honoured phrase: ‘The Lord is with you.’ It was the same reassurance Moses was given, that David heard, that Abraham was blessed with. There is a pattern, when God calls people to shape new beginnings for their lives or to take control of history or to carry out a great mission, there is always the reassurance that they are not alone, that God is with them. Therefore their actions can be bold, break new ground, can be unapologetic. It is not just a pious invocation. For people on the move whose lives reflect the contours of the Christmas story there is a deep challenge to be bold, to be unapologetic in their demands. To confront human wrong with courage and the commitment to change unjust structures that deprive them of their full humanity. There is the promise that God is there always on the side of the marginalised, on the side of the widow, the orphan and the stranger. So we must encourage each other to be bold, to move away from timidity in our advocacy and strategies. We must speak truth to power knowing that it is not simply about political expediency but a mission from the God who abides with us. Christmas is after all about God with us. Emmanuel.
As we continue to probe the back story of Christmas and the incredible engagement of Mary with the Archangel Gabriel there is another dynamic which we should pay careful attention to. In his announcement to Mary, Gabriel uses language that underlines the link of this Baby to David’s royal family. The baby will sit on the throne of David. He will bring about an everlasting Kingdom. He will reign over the House of Jacob forever. There is no question as to his dignity, a dignity that demands respect.
The Angel is making the point that even though or maybe precisely because the Davidic dynasty has fallen on hard times, even though Joseph, one of that household, is relegated to finding lodgings in a stable. Even though the outward signs are those of poverty, shabbiness. None the less the dignity and the status of that royal family is still in their genes, it is still a core signifier no matter what the appearances. Our mobile populations need to hold onto that insight too. Just because they have fallen on hard times, just because their accommodation is sub-standard none of those outward signs takes anything away from the dignity which courses through their veins. It is precisely that dignity and not any legal status that entitles them to protection, to access to rights or to find a welcome in our midst. What is at work is very significant, God is giving the wandering people a second chance. Through Jesus humanity will be given a second chance and the heirs of David will through the Messiah be given a second chance. Their shady history and failures will not count against, they will have new possibilities. This promise is meant for all those who migrate. Those who migrate in order to create better futures for their families, in order to find places of peace and healing after years in war zones and amidst endless conflicts. Those who wish to escape the environmental catastrophes that destroy their livelihoods. God is offering them in very specific situations, in particular contexts new beginnings. We must be very careful not to get in the way of the realisation of those new beginnings.
The task of people of good will is to come alongside the efforts, the advocacy, the strategies that the people on the move put forward and to support them where they have lacks. It is not us doing things for them. It is us coming alongside them as they decide on what to think, what to do and what to say. That in turn underlines one of the other central aspects of Christmas and that is hope. The hope the belief that the vision is not diminished by adversity. Hope is concretised in the small acts of kindness, in offering gifts that speak into affirming the identity of the other as the Wise Men’s gifts did, in seeing the holiness in the depths of the others life as curious and uncertain as that might be, just as the angels songs reflected. All essentially affirmed that identity and destiny of this baby amidst the adverse conditions. We are challenged to keep that vision, to continue to believe in the destiny of every person and especially of every child, affirming in different ways our belief in what they can become and gifting them with those gifts they need in order to become that person, to grow into their full destiny. All of this that lies at the heart of the Christmas story is also what is at the heart of every dream which we cherish for every refugee, migrant, asylum seeker and displaced person. It is a dream which we must not allow to fade but one which we must work to ensure that it becomes a vibrant reality. Unlike what has happened to the Christmas story we must not allow these stories to be so domesticated, so tamed that they will lose their essential challenge. If that happens we will all be the poorer.