In some sense the Christmas story is one of borders. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the Holy Family’s journey begins with a population divided, a census of “the whole world...each to his own town” (2:1-3). And, in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, then flee to Egypt, then settle in Nazareth—crossing border after border so that the Son of God might one day break them down.
The birth of Christ upends our earthly sense of order. He is both a child and a savior; he is visited by shepherds and kings alike. He disperses the arrogant, throws down rulers from their thrones; he lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things. Later, Christ’s Passion blurs the neat borders we so often construct between life and death, between the human and the divine. He is one who gives drink to the thirsty, and who, himself, thirsts.
We know that our lives are meant to mirror Christ’s. Yet we still struggle to live out God’s call to reconsider the lines our world is so eager to draw. Conflicts over political and religious divides result in ongoing suffering and tragic deaths for Israelis and Palestinians. Violence continues between Ukrainians and Russian separatists long after cease-fires have been called. Individuals from West African nations affected by Ebola have been quarantined and separated from their communities, often in a worthy effort to halt the spread of the deadly disease. But stigmas and continued fear of contagions have resulted in the abandonment or isolation of many who have survived.
In the United States, the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers have spurred nationwide anger and protests and drawn renewed attention to the many tensions and injustices that remain around issues of race in our country. Such episodes seed increased mistrust of authority, and Gallup polls show that our confidence in all branches of government is falling, with confidence in Congress at a record low.
Poverty, too, divides the American experience. In the United States alone, an estimated one in seven households are food insecure, even as Americans waste an estimated $165 billion of food each year. Families in the United States continue to seek stability, especially those with members who are undocumented. These families are described by President Obama as “part of American life” and by Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago as people “reaching out in hope”; yet discussions about the best way to assist such families has produced greater divisions between our political parties rather than greater empathy for the families that are struggling.
In the midst of uncertain times, it is all too easy to cry “each to his own town” and then settle into our own ways, to hole up in our own corners of the church or society. But Christ’s birth calls us to more carefully consider our place in this world, where we have come from and where we are headed. What borders are we called to cross or erase in our lives? In what ways are we being asked to move beyond the boundaries we have set for ourselves? We must begin to rebuild our trust in one another. We must not allow differences around faith, race, nationality or income to keep us from truly seeing one another as neighbors, as children of God.
Often it is fear—of the “other” or even of our own inadequacies—that keeps us from crossing those lines. And yet we must cross them. Over and over the Gospels remind us—in the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary, of the host of angels to the shepherds and of Jesus to the women who discover the empty tomb—“Do not be afraid.” We must take these words to heart. Christ entered fully into our humanity; he crossed from death into new life on our behalf. He understood what it meant to feel alone, cold, afraid, “other.” He understood the consequences of welcoming people who were considered outcasts. He understood that doing God’s will sometimes means experiencing pain and sorrow. We must let go of our fears and allow ourselves to be as vulnerable as that infant child born into his own uncertain times, and in doing so to become signs of good news.
Christ’s birth sends a message that cannot be contained by a single country or ideology and that must be lived, let out, set free. Through his birth, death and resurrection, and through our own lives—by seeking peace, by welcoming the stranger—we continually break down those obstacles that separate us from each other and from God. In each of us Christ is reborn. The Christmas season reminds us that we are invited to return to God’s love, to that place from which we have come, so that together we might build a reign of God that has no borders, one that has always existed and that remains to be seen, one that even as we help create it is already here.