Christmas Celebrates the Birth of a Refugee Who Was Killed by the State

I will never forget the moment she came up to me. Tears were rolling down her face. We had just had our worship services in the street that day, in front of our local gun shop because we wanted to connect the suffering of Jesus on the cross to the suffering of our neighborhood on the North side of Philadelphia, which carries a bulk of the trauma of poverty and violence in our city. It was just before Easter. We had just read the Gospel passage describing Jesus’s violent death, leaving his mother and those who loved him weeping at the foot of the cross.

Then she came up to me, tears streaming, and said, “I get it. I get it.” I looked at her gently, curiously, prompting her to say more. “God knows what it feels like to lose your child,” she said. “God knows what it feels like to see your baby get killed.”

I realized the woman weeping in front of me was the mother of Papito, a 19-year-old who had just been shot and killed on our block. She put the Gospel into words better than any theology book I read in seminary. As Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero used to say, “Some truth can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

Years later, I heard another mother, under very different circumstances, articulate the depth of this theology of a God who suffers. Her son was on death row facing execution and she said, “God knows what it feels like to be wrongfully convicted, to be sentenced to death, to be humiliated and dehumanized and shamed, even to be executed. It’s exactly what happened to Jesus.”

At Christmas, many Christians like me sing carols about “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us” — but many of us miss the profound depth of what we’re singing: The coming of Christ is about a God who leaves all the comfort of heaven to join the struggle here on Earth.

But rarely do we remove ourselves from all the consumerism and hustle and bustle of Christmas long enough to let the profound truth of this season sink in.

Of all the ways God could enter the world, God came to us as a baby born in the middle of a genocide. The gospels tell of a terrible massacre that occurred, an unspeakable act of violence as King Herod slaughters children throughout the land, hoping to kill Jesus … which the Church remembers as the massacre of the “Holy Innocents.”

Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt with their young baby. In other words, our scriptures say Jesus came to us as a refugee.

Jesus was born in a dirty, stank manger because there was no room in the inn. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, was born to a teen mom who couldn’t afford the usual offerings given in the temple at the birth of a new child.

And the struggle didn’t end after his birth. Jesus wandered the world as a homeless rabbi saying, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus was homeless.

After a short 33 years, he is arrested and tortured, charged with all sorts of things, and eventually executed by the state, a victim of state-sanctioned murder dying on a cross with a condemned man on his left and another on his right … a reminder that crucifixion was an iconic instrument of imperial torture. Historians said sometimes you couldn’t even enjoy a good sunset because there were so many crosses on the horizon.

From the cradle to the grave, Jesus felt the pain of the human condition.

This is the story the Bible tells, but it is not the story invoked through Hallmark images of the white baby Jesus sleeping in a sanitized manger with little white angels all around him. The long-awaited Messiah came as a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew from a town called Nazareth where people said nothing good could come (John 1:46).

The imperial, capitalist and anti-immigrant institutions and forces in this world that uphold violence in the name of Christianity would face an existential crisis if they were forced to actually contend with the radical assertion within Christian scriptures: At heart, the coming of Christ was a profound act of divine solidarity. God came in the form of a refugee, a homeless rabbi, a victim of state-sponsored violence. Jesus absorbed all the violence of the world unto himself — and triumphed over that violence with love, with mercy, with forgiveness.

That is what Christmas should be … but it is easy to forget the story.

A fundamentally life-altering and world-changing transformation would occur if all the Christians throughout the world could actually absorb the demand within our own scriptures to identify with a victim of state-sponsored violence.

But most years, many Christians simply settle for consumption over compassion. We spend the season rushing around buying stuff for people who already have everything they need. We search high and low hoping some company invented something new so that we can buy it for people who won’t find happiness through more possessions.

U.S. consumers spend over $1 trillion globally each year at Christmas — 1,000,000,000,000 dollars. In remembrance of the refugee, the homeless rabbi, the executed Savior.

Many Christians also get caught up each year in the “war on Christmas” debate insisting that everyone needs to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” But this year, as was the case 2,000 years ago, Herod is on the move. Children are victims of violence, separated from their families at the border. Millions of people are living on the streets without adequate food and health care and housing. I don’t think God cares if people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” in a country whose policies betray so much of what Christians believe Jesus taught, and lived and died for.

And for those of us who are Christians, we’ve got to keep finding new ways of telling the Christmas story to remind each other that it’s about a God who left all the comfort of heaven to join the struggle here on Earth.

I’ll never forget this story one pastor told me a few years back.

He told me his congregation tried something a little different for their Christmas services at his church. Instead of the usual holiday décor, they brought a bunch of manure and hay into the sanctuary and scattered it under the pews so the place would really smell like the stank manger where it all began. I laughed as he described everyone coming in, in all their best Christmas attire, only to sit in the rank smell of a barn.

They even brought a donkey in during the opening of the service that dropped a special gift as it moseyed down the aisle. Folks looked awkwardly at each other. Some were offended, some snickered, and some left. But for those who stayed, it was something like they’d never seen before. It was one of the most memorable services they’d ever had.

They were reminded of the real meaning of Christmas — God entered the filth.

This Christmas, I want to challenge other Christians to remember that the Savior we celebrate was born into manure. He’s much more interested in us getting dirty in the trenches than decorating the temple. What Jesus cares about is how we care for the most vulnerable people on Earth — the widows and orphans, the immigrants and refugees, the sick and the homeless. After all, according to our Bible, Christ himself said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”

The world we live in, like the world Christ lived in, is ravaged with violence and poverty. Being a Christian in the current era should mean preaching good news to the poor and casting the mighty from their thrones. The Christmas story teaches that God is with us — if we are with the poor.