What happened after Bethlehem?
To solve one of today's thorniest issues, we need to carry the Christmas story beyond the manger.
Once the manger was empty, what happened? We forget. (Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash)
A worker arrived at our home one day last month to help us get ready for the holiday season, but I was out running an errand. My wife texted, “You’d better get home. He’s Gideon.” Unusual name, I thought, with a Biblical heritage I couldn’t quite recall.
It turned out to be one of those misunderstood text messages, a result of thumbs or eyes not keeping up with brain cells, which I learned when I arrived home and stuck out my hand with a hearty, “Hello, Gideon!” No, his name was something ordinary for a guy about my age in America, like Bill or Bob or Tom. He was, however, a Gideon — a member of the international organization of evangelical Christian businessmen (no, women do not qualify, nor do men in non-professional jobs) that is best known for placing Bibles in hotels. In fact, they place Bibles everywhere, not just in lodgings. But they also “witness” wherever they go — that is, they eagerly tell their own story of turning to Christianity.1
Which is what our visiting worker promptly did when I showed up. My busy wife had summoned me, it turns out, because she didn’t have time to listen. I get called in for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons on the doorstep, too, or really whenever talk turns to belief. It’s because of my heritage: Church work runs in my clan like firefighting or policing does in some families, or like politics if your name is Kennedy. I can quote Scripture backatcha.
In this season, of course, even non-believers hear a lot from the Bible, because the celebration of Christmas is so linked to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Christmas in America is now more a commercial holiday than a religious one, but you can’t escape the story of the Silent Night when a baby was laid Away in a Manger, as Angels From the Realms of Glory appeared While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. The story is inspiring, as is some of the music that has grown up around it. (Some.)
Yet you can’t help but wish believers would read a bit further, or maybe deeper, and absorb some often overlooked lessons from those Bibles. It might help to overcome some of the political battles that rage year-around in America, especially in places where right-wing politics and conservative Christianity have merged. Just as dance troupes wish that their holiday audiences might transcend The Nutcracker and see more illuminating dance performances, some of us dream of a day when more good people will get beyond the story of the nativity and embrace the acts that its message mandates.
Take, to begin, the familiar biblical accounts of the trek to Bethlehem by the carpenter Joseph and his pregnant fiancée, Mary. It would have been about a four-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, historians say — an uncomfortable donkey ride for a woman who was about to give birth. Finding no room in the crowded little city, the couple took shelter in a stall, we read, where their baby was born surrounded by livestock, his crib a feeding trough for the animals.
And what happened next? That’s where Christmas kind of ends, and since the marketers aren’t involved, we tend to lose interest. Which is too bad, because then, scripture says, Joseph had a dream, or maybe a message from an angel, that King Herod planned to murder the child. So he and Mary packed up the infant and fled to Egypt — the border in those days being perhaps a 12-hour walk from Bethlehem. They stayed in Egypt for two years, according to some biblical scholars — a wise move, since Herod had ordered the slaughter of every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem, according to the best historical account of the time. The family of Jesus didn’t return to Nazareth until Herod’s son took the throne.2
If you consider that story, it wouldn’t surprise you that the religion based on the teachings of Jesus emphasizes in its fundamental texts hospitality to people who are refugees and homeless. What you might be shocked to note, though, is the disregard for those teachings by so many people who profess that faith most ardently.
It is in the collection of books and essays that became the Christian Bible — what the Gideons distribute today — that the story is revealed that the family of Jesus was, essentially, homeless at his birth, and then refugees in an alien country until he was a toddler. So you wonder: Isn’t that awfully similar to the stories of hundreds of thousands of people who are fleeing to America from their poverty-stricken and dangerous homelands? Aren’t those very people targeted with disgust by some quite pious Americans who profess to be following the tenets of Christianity?
That’s not to argue that nations shouldn’t maintain borders. It is to suggest that in the face of a brown-skinned infant in a U.S. refugee shelter, we may see the face of the brown-skinned Jesus in Egypt, and ask ourselves what that recognition may require of us. How shall we treat him, and all of them?
No wonder the apostle Paul, whose dynamic leadership essentially created early Christianity, wrote in the first-century letter that’s today called the Book of Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”3 Paul had earlier urged the little group of believers in Rome to “extend hospitality to strangers.”4 Those early Christian teachings, of course, follow those of Judaism, which was the faith of Jesus himself. As we read in Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, and of the Old Testament that the Gideons distribute: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”5
Yet it is a dispute over how to deal with aliens in America that left Congress quitting Washington in frustration this month, without settling that issue or approving aid to Israel, Ukraine and the Pacific that Republicans insist must be tied to it. Perhaps three million migrants have crossed borders into the U.S. this year, and the measures that Congress might take to slow the flow — and deal humanely with both the newcomers and the millions of undocumented non-citizens who have lived in the U.S. for years — have been stalled for years. There has been no meaningful immigration reform since 1986, and it is causing economic travails around the country.
This week, for instance, a report in The Washington Post noted that there are 8.7 million open jobs that qualified immigrants could fill, if it weren’t for the strict quotas that block both skilled and unskilled foreign-born workers – quotas that were last updated when the U.S. economy was half the size it is today. “Only Congress can expand legal immigration,” wrote The Post’s Lisa Rein. “But year after year, legislation that would lift caps for work and family visas and other categories goes nowhere. Most Republican lawmakers have hardened in their view that border measures to stop the flow of illegal crossings must come ahead of any expansion of legal immigration.”6
The notion that immigrants are a threat to America, the daily drumbeat of years on Fox News, is untrue. (Also unsurprising, right?) Zeke Hernandez, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has a book coming in June that explains why immigration “doesn’t take away jobs from natives, and it tends not to lower wages,” as he told public radio’s Marketplace. “So it’s not just the supply of all workers that increases, but the demand for other things that increases, which means the economic pie is bigger,” Hernandez said.
And after citing statistics to show the immigrant contribution to the nation, he concluded, “The economy needs these immigrants.”
But as we noted in The Upstate American last week, the political benefit to Republicans of attacking the Biden administration about border issues is too attractive for the party to be serious about fixing the issue. Never mind the economic growth that would come from immigration reform — and never mind the care that we owe the immigrants now living in shelters or scrounging to subsist in the shadows, if we are to follow the humane teachings that many of us profess. Or pay any attention to the post-manger story.
So as another year-end nears when we have failed to address those needs, we find ourselves in a season when a thoughtful reading of the full Christmas story might enlighten us. For after the shepherds went back to their flocks and the three magi returned to their homelands — and after the baby was born “rough,” as we now call life on the street — the little family of homeless asylum-seekers sought comfort in a foreign land.
That story is plain for all to see in those Bibles the Gideons distribute, just beyond the story that we hear about in all that music. If we read a bit further, it might help us to reach beyond the “Merry Christmas” greetings that we so easily offer, and to extend then some truly transforming love. But that is easier to talk about than to deliver, in any season.
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- Rex Smith