There has been little holiday cheer in the headlines recently. Chaos reigns in Washington, D.C., financial markets wobble, and our foreign policy appears to be unraveling. Families have been left homeless by wildfires and shattered by opioids. Attacks on racial and religious minorities are on the rise. A government shutdown over a border wall is set to ruin many an American family’s Christmas. And misery continues to be compounded at our border, with the recent death of a 7-year-old girl named Jakelin illustrating the human cost of our refusal to build a more just immigration system.
If you are following all that, it can be hard to get into the Christmas spirit. It is naturally tempting to simply unplug and turn off the news app. Isn’t the season about focusing on quality time with friends and family, our greatest worry being some last-minute shopping and jockeying for a good seat at Christmas Mass?
We see the echoes of the Nativity story all around us.
But if one reads the Bible one sees the Nativity story is actually pretty bleak. For all the shepherds, angels and wise foreigners, there is King Herod and the needy being turned away. It is a story of a miracle but also a story of refugees, and it ends with the massacre of innocent children. It is not a happy tale. It is a hopeful one, bringing the promise of a savior. But for the people who lived and breathed that holy night in Bethlehem, there was no escaping the horrors of their world.
And so this Christmas, maybe we shouldn’t try to escape that horror either. We see the echoes of the Nativity story all around us. Who can read the news and not find evidence of modern Herods? There are families at the border, asking for a place to stay and being told to go away. Today, the three wise men from the East bearing gifts would be stopped at our airports. And was not the death of 7-year-old Jakelin a tragedy equal to any of the children lost in the massacre of the innocents? Are not the migrant children in government cages evidence of cruelty almost as twisted?
Even shepherds are having a hard time. When one thinks of shepherds as nomadic agricultural workers, people on the margins whose hard work propped up the economy, today’s migrant farmworkers come to mind. In California, these farmworkers were forced to work through the smoke of our recent wildfires. Volunteers offering smoke masks to workers in the fields were even turned away. Meanwhile, a conflict between literal shepherds and their farmer neighbors has claimed lives on both sides in Nigeria. And, of course, the metaphorical shepherds of the Catholic Church have themselves been responsible for immense anger and grief among their flocks.
If Jesus was born today, where might we find him? I would say Tijuana would be a good place to start looking.
If Jesus was born today, where might we find him? I would say Tijuana would be a good place to start looking. As baby Jesus fled to Egypt in his mother’s arms, so now are babies fleeing to the United States in the arms of modern-day Marias and Joses. Folks in Tijuana and San Diego who celebrate las posadas at the U.S.-Mexico border wall have the right idea. The group representing Maria and Jose sing from the Mexican side to be let in. The group representing the innkeepers sing from the U.S. side, their scripted refusal reinforced by the imposing barrier between them. There will sadly be no bi-national sharing of tamales at the end of this ritual.
Does all this knowledge take away from Christmas? Not at all. It is rather a reminder of why we need it in the first place. Christmas is about the arrival of hope, which is needed most precisely when things seem to be at their darkest. The state of the world today is as urgent and horrific as it has ever been. The arrival of a savior is as relevant today as it was on the first Christmas. We should not shy away from that. This is not a holiday to be comfortable; Jose, Maria and Jesús were not comfortable in the manger. This is a holiday for those of us who are as comfortable as the innkeeper to notice all those who may be knocking on our doors.
One look at the news should remind us: It is not the most wonderful time of the year. But there is plenty of reason for the season.