May Christmas transform our hearts and our society

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The Christmas season is upon us — in the traditional Church calendar, Christmas began on Dec. 25 and ends at Epiphany on Jan. 6 (followed by the beginning of the Orthodox Christmas season Jan. 7).

Regardless of when you believe Christmas begins and ends, the season is, at its best, a time of family, of giving, tradition, faith, love and beauty. Christmas is all these things. But, in its original telling, and for far too many in our society today, there is another side to Christmas.

The Gospel Nativity recounts a teen mother, forced by a tyrannical power, to undertake an arduous trek in the last days of her pregnancy, all to collect taxes for empire. She gave birth among beasts. Perhaps 1-2 years later, she became a refugee, fleeing for the sake of her child’s life to a foreign land.

The worst parts of Mary’s story are relived today by millions of refugees — as many as 26 million — and in the lives of the poor, oppressed, homeless and forgotten. They suffer in our land of plenty in ways that could make you believe the promise of the Nativity — of redemption and sacrificial love — never really took hold in our nation, or in our hearts.

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Four days before Christ’s birthday, The Guardian published an article on another Mary. This María fled to the United States last Christmas with her niece, whom she adopted after every other member of their family was murdered by a gang in Guatemala.

Upon arrival in our self-proclaimed Christian nation, María received, instead of asylum, imprisonment in a detention center. Her daughter was stripped from her and sent to a foster home 2,400 miles away.

Nine months into her “detention,” María and her attorney (she’s lucky enough to have one) have no idea if she will be reunited with her daughter, here or in Guatemala. Without an attorney, it’s likely she already would have lost track of her daughter.

Her daughter is one of an estimated 5,500 children separated from their parents since 2016 by our “Christian” nation. According to The Guardian, “no one has tracked how many children have been split from non-parent relatives, nor is there a formal mechanism for those families to reunify.”

The Guardian article came out one day after The Washington Post reported a White House plan to use migrant children as bait to lure and arrest their family members, rather than reunify them.

María’s story is anecdotal of an international migrant and refugee crisis. Amid that crisis, Pope Francis, in his Christmas message, reminded Christians of all stripes refugees and marginalized peoples “represent a voice crying in the wilderness of our humanity” and the baby Jesus of our Christmas celebrations “has the face of our brothers and sisters most in need.”

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But, when we look at refugees, immigrants and those in need, our predominantly Christian society seems to see everything but the face of Christ.

In a November 2018 commentary, Eric Black, executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard, said 86% of Protestant pastors in 2016 agreed “Christians have a responsibility to care sacrificially for refugees and foreigners.” But, in a separate study, only 9% of their church members said faith is the dominant influence on their views of immigration.

If faith isn’t informing American Christianity’s views of “the least of these brothers and sisters,” then what is? Black came to a disturbing, but not surprising, conclusion: we fear those different than us, and we fear, perhaps most of all, losing money to them.

Black went on to enumerate in good detail facts I’ve already pointed out in other issues of this column, showing immigrants (legal or otherwise) are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crime, they give back more than they receive, and strengthen our economy and our nation as a whole. Yet, our Christian view of them remains driven by greed and fear.

Greed and fear. These are not the fruit of Mary’s womb. These are not the promise of Christmas. And we will not find them, if we are honest, in the Nativity, the Gospel, at the cross or in any honest estimation of the Christian message.

If we look with honesty, setting aside fear, we see something entirely better and different. As St. Oscar Romero told us on Christmas Eve, 1979: “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways.”

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Three months later, Romero was assassinated by the forces of this world for pointing us to a vision of Christmas that transcends this world, and uplifts the lowly in the face of the powerful.

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This message of Christmas is not meek and mild. It is a message that calls all who call themselves Christian to lift up María, to lift up all who suffer, hunger, fear and lack, and embrace them with the love of the child we celebrate on Christmas.

In the words of Pope Francis, “May he soften our often stony and self-centered hearts and make them channels of his love.”

Merry Christmas to us all. And may this Christmas transform our hearts, our society and our children’s future, into something more befitting the true message of this season.

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