Ruining Christmas


Now when the wise men had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” –Matthew 2:13-15

“Silent night, all is calm, all is bright,” goes the song. The picture conjured up by our sentimental Christmas carols is one of peaceful, dreamy stillness. But what about the midnight flight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus? That’s part of the Christmas story, too.

The urgency in this part of the story is frightening. You don’t get the impression that the holy family’s flight to Egypt was like a family vacation, with plenty of time to pack and plan. No, this escape was prompted by an insistent message from an angel: “Get up, Joseph, and flee to Egypt!” Not, “Start packing tomorrow,” but “Get up and get out right now.” The angel’s urgency makes it sound like the soldiers would be there any moment, and that they had to run immediately. And as you keep reading, it’s obvious that Joseph took the directions literally: they left that very night, possibly the very night that Herod’s soldiers arrived.

Does your mental picture of Christmas include Joseph awakened in the middle of the night by a terrifying and urgent dream, Mary frantically gathering up the family’s few belongings in the dark, and the couple running for their lives down the winding streets of Bethlehem as Herod’s soldiers closed in? Can you imagine Mary trying to quiet the baby Jesus as they hid in the shadows? At that moment they needed the ridiculous words of the carol, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” to actually be true.

When you picture the holy family, what image comes to mind? The beautiful porcelain figures from the nativity on your mantle? Children in your church’s Christmas pageant dressed in fluffy bathrobes while the choir sings “Away in a Manger?”

Or do you picture a refugee family on the news, running with fear in their faces, clutching the few possessions they managed to grab, holding little ones in their arms as they desperately try to escape danger? That’s a more accurate image. The holy family was a refugee family, first driven from their homes by Roman tax collectors, and then fleeing for their lives from a king’s deranged, bloodthirsty anger.

As I write this, it has been one year since the Syrian refugee crisis exploded into the consciousness of Americans, even though the crisis has been ongoing for some time. With nearly 5 million Syrians having fled to neighboring countries and another 6 million displaced internally, the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, which makes it the second worst humanitarian disaster in the history of the world, in terms of sheer numbers of people affected.

And up until this point, the response of the American church has been, by and large, to completely miss the point of the Christmas story. Instead of rising up with courage and compassion and risk-taking, sacrificial love, most American Christians have responded with fear and anger and support for callous political policies aimed at stripping aid away from those who need it most. We have forgotten that the One we worship was himself a Middle Eastern refugee.

In Matthew 25, Jesus said that the authenticity of our love for him would be measured by how we treated the hungry, the immigrant, the destitute, and the imprisoned, because, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” He was not speaking metaphorically. Look into the frightened face of refugees and you will see the face of Jesus, because he himself was a refugee. We cannot turn away from those Jesus identified with—whether it be the refugees on the news, the homeless man on the corner, or the shattered and sinful family next door. We cannot turn away from them, because Jesus didn’t turn away from them, and in his incarnation actually became poor, became homeless, became a refugee. As Christians who claim to love Jesus and love the celebration of his birth, we cannot close our doors or our hearts to the “least of these” who look just like Jesus. To despise those whom Christ identified with in his incarnation is to despise Christ himself.

The incarnation means that God became not just a generic human, but a very specific type of human: born as a Middle Eastern Jew into poverty and violence and scandal, raised as a refugee, homeless and penniless for most of his ministry. That’s the kind of human that God became.

And so the Christmas story must move us to compassionate, courageous action if it is to mean anything at all. To love the Christ of Christmas means we must love those with whom he identifies. So examine your life against the radical call of discipleship that Jesus repeats throughout his earthly ministry and test the authenticity of your devotion against Jesus’ definitions. What categories of people does your heart not have room for? Who are you not interested in helping? Does the direction of your heart’s attention, not to mention the priorities of your schedule and budget, aim towards those who look like Jesus, or those who look like you? Are you willing, like Jesus did in his incarnation and entire ministry, to move outside of your comfort zone on the same mission of mercy with which Jesus rescued you? It would be a shame to love the holiday and miss what it’s telling us to do.