Let us not let fear of the stranger overtake our love this Christmas

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We all know the story; the details are familiar. Mary is pregnant with God’s Son. Joseph, her husband, is at her side. Political officials have decreed that they must go to Bethlehem to register. Rome, the oppressor, was keeping track of her subjects. Joseph walks while Mary sits astride their donkey for the arduous journey from Galilee. When they arrive, there is no room for them in any dwelling, so they settle for a stable and prepare for the birth of their son.

All this happened two thousand years ago; and forever and ever the world will always be blessed and redeemed by the birth of that little baby boy in the stable in Bethlehem. We who call ourselves Christians today are not only called to remember the original story and to tell it to our children, but we are called to live the same story in our own lives. Jesus Christ does not have to be born again in time; he has already done that. Yet, Jesus Christ needs to be born again through us in our time and our place, in our world today.

Only those without hope give up on our world. There is violence, greed and hatred aplenty, but there is love, generosity and mercy also. Not to believe this is to deny the power of Jesus’ presence among us. We see the bumper stickers and the billboards urging us to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” That means more than fighting to have a crèche in front of a city hall or to say “Merry Christmas” freely. Keeping Christ in Christmas challenges us to act like Christ.

At Jesus’ birth there was no room in the inn for the strangers. Today, there is no room in many places for the strangers. Fear has overtaken love. Jesus always chose love over fear and so must we. Boko Haram and ISIS are the two most powerful terror networks in the world. Boko Haram is the most deadly, but their violence has been in Africa, not in the West, so it appears to be of less interest to us. ISIS has been deadly for the past five years. Their recent attacks on Russia and the West have instilled fear to the First World, including us. It has galvanized our desire for revenge and isolation. All Syrians are now suspect. Millions of them are fleeing for their lives and some want to shut our doors, build our walls, label every Arabic speaking person, every Muslim as a potential terrorist.

Refugee resettlement is a complicated process. There have to be screening procedures for refugees, but that process does not have to include the diatribes and hatred that have become an acceptable norm since the Paris bombing. History has always had its scapegoats. The group changes with the tides: Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Irish, Italians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans. The signs have been posted in store windows: “NO ______ NEED APPLY.” Fill in the blank according to the times.

Fifty years ago a monk, Thomas Merton, wrote these words: “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 this world. He is mysteriously present in all those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. It is in these that he hides himself.”

Welcoming the stranger is a part of our faith, sheltering the homeless is an essential part of who we are as followers of Jesus. If our hearts are Bethlehem, then we pray that the Holy Spirit stretch them until there is room for everyone. We are the manger holding the child Jesus. We are the angels announcing his birth by the way we live. We are Mary presenting her baby to the world. We are Joseph hovering over families in protection and love. We are the stars shining over our country and our homes and lighting the path for the strangers to find new homes. In this spirit we sing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.”

Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.