With all the joy and celebration that accompany Christmas, it’s easy to forget that the first Christmas was a harrowing and, at times, dehumanizing experience for the Holy Family.
In Luke 2:7, we find out that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” Perhaps there truly wasn’t a square inch to spare at the inn, but I wonder if the Holy Family, being outsiders to Bethlehem, were rejected in part because they were strangers in an unfamiliar land. If they had been known to the innkeeper, maybe some accommodation would’ve been made. But we know that’s not how the story goes.
Matthew’s Gospel describes the Holy Family’s flight from the wrath of King Herod to Egypt, where they stayed until his death. So, not only did the young family face humiliation on a personal level by the innkeeper’s rejection, they also felt a crippling pressure to escape the powers that be.
From Syria to our own homeland, many families grapple with the same feelings of pain and anxiety that Mary and Joseph felt over 2,000 years ago. Christmas should be celebrated with hearts full of gladness, but our faith also encourages us to remember the plight of the Holy Family—and all those on the periphery.
When Pope Francis addressed Congress during his September 2015 visit to the United States, he touched on topics ranging from the sanctity of life to the need for political leaders to act on climate change. He also spoke about the difficult situations facing immigrants in both the United States and the world at large.
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” he said in his 45-minute speech.
“To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
The numbers to which Pope Francis referred are indeed staggering. An estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States, the majority from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Living in the shadows of our society, many undocumented immigrants work in dangerous conditions, have subpar access to health care, and struggle to find their place in the rich mosaic of the American society that surrounds them.
From the international perspective, the civil war that erupted in Syria in 2011 has resulted in a mass exodus of refugees into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as parts of Europe. Like the xenophobia that undocumented immigrants face in the United States, the Syrian refugees, now numbering over 4 million, have encountered stiff resistance from the citizens of the countries in which they seek shelter.
In Turkey alone, over 2 million refugees reside in camps where essential resources are only thinly provided.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us once were foreigners,” Pope Francis said in his address to Congress. With the Holy Year of Mercy still in recent memory, the leader of our Church is calling us to put aside fear and inaction, and instead be actively compassionate.
If the Holy Family came knocking at your door looking for shelter, but wore the face of the other—whomever it might be that you feel tempted to turn away—could you muster up the mercy to find a comfortable place for them to rest? Could you put aside whatever stigma we might have attached to them and welcome them in as gracious hosts?
This is Pope Francis’ challenge for us.