Every Christmas morning, my friend Sean’s parents would load their three sons into the family car and head to a local soup kitchen. Sean and his brothers would help out by putting napkins and flatware on the tables, then a hot meal would be served and gifts distributed to the patrons. Sean’s dad sometimes dressed up as Santa Claus.
On the first day back from Christmas break one year during middle school, Sean’s teacher asked the class what they had done over the holidays. “We served a meal at the soup kitchen in the morning and then we came home and celebrated,” Sean told his class. An awkward silence followed. Sean could tell that kids around the room were staring at him.
“That was the first time it occurred to me that this was not the way most of my friends spent their Christmases,” Sean remembers. “One of my favorite parts about serving was that it wasn’t a big deal. My parents really did a good job of integrating it into our holiday traditions. It was just something we did.”
For many of us, the Advent and Christmas seasons are times when we feel an especially strong pull to reach out toward those who are in need. Why? Maybe one reason is that while Christmas is supposed to be full of joy and togetherness, we realize that there are so many people in the world who are hurting and lonely, and we feel called to close that gap. Sean’s family surely responded to this call in a powerful way.
One thing I love about the Christmas stories found in the Gospels is that they so clearly affirm the season’s tradition of compassion. The stories are chock-full of love, justice, and God’s special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable. Let’s explore these themes by focusing on a few of the Christmas season’s central characters: Mary and Joseph; the Christ-child; and the shepherds and Magi.
Mary and Joseph
It’s impossible to imagine. The Virgin Mary – a devout teenager, not yet married to Joseph – is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will bear the Son of God. At first, she is “greatly troubled” by this unexpected news. Mary, after all, knows the punishment other unwed mothers have faced in her community: execution by stoning.
But, drawing on the deepest well of faith ever known, Mary says yes to God’s plan. She says yes to life.
This time of year, I spend a lot of time thinking about other mothers who are facing unexpected pregnancies, and wonder about the trepidation many of them must be feeling. I pray that our communities of faith can be places of welcome where all parents – single and married, well-off and struggling – feel supported in their choice for life.
Mary found this sort of radical hospitality in Joseph. When he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, his first instinct was to divorce her quietly, protecting her from shame and violence. Then, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, but to care for Mary and her unborn child, he took Mary into his home.
Their journey together took them to Bethlehem and then, in the Gospel of Matthew’s account, into Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. This must not be forgotten: The Holy Family was a refugee family. How relevant and painful it is to reflect on that fact against the backdrop of the world’s current refugee crisis.
On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I went to a prayer service for migrants and refugees at Catholic Charities’ headquarters in Camden. The room was filled with Catholic Charities staff members and recently resettled refugees who had just finished an English class. Some of the refugees have arrived here in the past few months from Syria, welcomed by Catholic Charities and working to build a new life in South Jersey. During the general intercessions, prayers for refugees were read by a handful of the refugees themselves who have become confident English speakers. I have had very few, if any, more powerful experiences of prayer in my life. How might the world be different if every Christian around the world consciously saw the Holy Family in each refugee family?
What can we learn about God from our belief that he came into the world as a baby boy?
God could’ve come to Earth wielding the power of a superhero, but he didn’t. Instead, he came to Earth as the Christ-child, incarnating “transparency, vulnerability, defenselessness,” as the great spiritual writer Fr. Ronald Rolheiser puts it. “Ultimately though that power, helplessness and vulnerability, is the greatest power of all because it, and it alone, can transform hearts,” Rolheiser writes. “You don’t soften hearts by overpowering them. You transform hearts through another kind of persuasion.”
There has been a collective, societal obsession with political and military power this year – even more than usual, perhaps. Christmas is a reminder that God transforms the world (and invites us to join in the work) with gentleness.
Shepherds and Magi
Both of our Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth include visitors to the manger: shepherds in Luke and Magi in Matthew. Why?
Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that shepherds in first-century Palestine were “among the lowest-esteemed laborers.” That they are Jesus’s very first companions in Luke’s Gospel sets the stage for Christ’s later ministry, during which he consistently accompanied those who were poor and marginalized. As disciples, the way Jesus spent time is a model for how we might spend time; his priorities should be our priorities.
While the Magi aren’t poor or vulnerable the same way the shepherds are, they come from outside the Jewish community, and reveal how the love of God made flesh in Christ embraces all people. The boundaries we build up to separate groups based on race, religion, class, age, ability, and more are not of God. Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, cuts to the heart of this idea in his book Tattoos on the Heart. “No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it,” he writes. “Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”
If our Christmas season in 2016 is filled with radical hospitality, respect for the dignity of life at every stage, and kinship with the marginalized, our celebration will surely look a lot like the very first Christmas. Or, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” May every heart prepare Him room! Merry Christmas!