Fear not, the angel said to the shepherds. Do not be afraid. I have joyful tidings for all. A Savior is born. Then a multitude appeared, proclaiming glory to God in the highest, and peace and good will on earth. What better news could there be?
But given the current state of things in our country and our world, the Christmas message seems hollow, and futile. There is lingering war in Ukraine, and bitter fighting in Israel and Gaza, with a slaughter of innocents far surpassing Herod’s evil crusade. Good will has vanished, replaced by a deeply polarized political climate with no space for rational discussion or compromise. Opponents aren’t just wrong, they’re evil.
And fear abounds. Fear of the immigrants and refugees crowding our borders, especially those of color; fear of the men and women filling our jails and prisons; fear of the hungry and homeless walking our streets; fear of almost anyone who thinks and acts in ways that differ from our notions of how people should behave.
In this darkening season, that virus of fear has infected far too many of us. It has overwhelmed the promise of the angels and the Christ child born that wondrous night.
Nearly 60 years ago, Trappist monk and scholar Thomas Merton wrote a powerful Christmas meditation that began: “We live in the time of no room.” I can’t say I like it, because it’s painful to ponder and never fails to challenge my holiday comfort and complacency. But I can’t forget it. The heart of his message is this searing reminder:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. . . .It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.1
Those words directly echo the teaching of our Lord Jesus, who was born in a barn, was a child refugee, and was executed by the state in his early 30s. In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, he says that the essential difference between those who will be welcomed into his kingdom and those who will be barred from it is not dogma or devotions or even donations. It is whether they cared for the poor and the homeless and the strangers and the prisoners in our midst.
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus identified with the people on the margins of society. “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” he says, “you did for me.” When we engage with their problems and their struggles and their needs, we are not simply doing the work of Jesus. We are meeting him directly in the least of these.
It is a terrible irony for Christians that the aliens and the outcasts and the discredited whom we fear most are the very people who are closest to the heart of Jesus, his embodiment on earth. They are the very people he calls us to welcome and embrace and support and care for.
If we truly hear the song of the angels, if we make this season a time of room, a time we open our hearts and homes and lives to the least of these, we are promised two great gifts. Those we fear will become our beloved brothers and sisters. And in them we will come face to face with Jesus himself.
Title Image: “Woman Crying, Leaving Gaza City after Israeli Evacuation Order and Bombing” by Motaz Azaiza مُعْتَز عزايزة on Instagram.
- Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New Directions: New York, NY, 1966). ↩︎