“While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7)
As Christmas approaches, I find myself thinking of the many migrants and refugees who, like Mary and Joseph are on the move in our world today. As hard as it is to believe, over 2 million refugees have fled the civil war in Syria and have made their way to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. In Lebanon, which has absorbed more than a million refugees in the past two years, the government has not allowed the establishment of refugee camps. Instead, ordinary Muslim and Christian people throughout Lebanon have somehow made room for their neighbors in need. I cannot help but to think of Mary and Joseph in need at the time of Jesus’ birth and finding themselves in the stable in Bethlehem.
During the Christmas season our society gives particular emphasis to reaching out to those who are poor and in need. Care for the poor at Christmas is a response to the fact that Jesus and his family were poor people. As one commentator has noted, Jesus began his life sleeping in a borrowed crib and at the end of his life was buried in a borrowed tomb. From personal experience, the Jesus we meet in the Gospels was familiar with the struggles and hardships of the poor. Those he called to be his followers, those he preached to and taught and those he healed, were largely the poor and outcast of society.
In the world of Jesus, like the world of today, those who are poor are the most powerless and vulnerable people in society. Yet it was as a poor man that Jesus chose to enter into our human condition. Jesus so identified with the poorest and the neediest people in society that he made care of the poor and those in need the criteria for salvation itself. In St. Matthew’s gospel, speaking of the Last Judgment at the end of time, Jesus says:
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Thus, through what we have come to call the “corporal works of mercy”, our generosity to the poor is generosity to Jesus himself. We welcome Jesus into our hearts and our lives at Christmas through our acts of kindness and compassion to those who are need. Yes, there is such an urgent need in our world that we might be tempted to be overwhelmed. It is easy to become paralyzed, thinking that our small contribution will make no difference and do nothing.
During this Christmas season there are many in need in our world – Syrian refugees and those made homeless by the typhoon in the Philippines. It is wonderful to see all the groups and individuals who have responded so generously in our country and community to help relieve the suffering of the people of the Philippines and Syria. And we should not lose sight of them as we continue to support them with our generous contributions and other efforts to relieve the suffering of the poor.
Similarly, I am aware of all the generosity to all of our local charities that serve the poor and those in need during this Christmas season. Their work is exemplary and our support of them is vital.
As Christmas is only a few days away, a reminder that the St. Vincent de Paul Society is still in need of unwrapped gifts for boys and girls (newborn to age 16). Gifts can be dropped off at Smith Hall, 8617 Teal Street. If you have any questions please contact Martha Crockroft at 789-5535, Ext.7.
May God bless you and your loved ones this Christmas season!
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.