The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Have you ever felt like an outsider? Have you ever felt like you belonged in the margins? Have you ever felt sadness or envy or anger because someone pointed out how you didn’t belong or how you didn’t look or dress or talk like them or how you won’t ever be one of them? Is it because of your national or cultural origin? Is it because you went to that other school, or you didn’t go to the right church? Are you suspect because you have shady family members or a shady past yourself? Were you excluded by people you knew or was it mostly by total strangers? Was it because you hung out with and liked other people who were considered outsiders too? Was there something about you other people looked down on? Were you just misunderstood or treated unfairly or ignored entirely? It could have just been all in your head, but to you the rejection and condemnation and condescension were very real. Maybe you were so stressed you had nightmares, or you made up imaginary friends, or you ground your teeth in your sleep. Maybe you had to make up excuses to avoid going out in public. Maybe the pressure gave you stomach upset or panic attacks or migraines. Maybe you cried yourself to sleep many a night and dreaded getting up the next day.
Maybe you have carried for so long such a heavy burden of shame and guilt you just have no idea how to set it down and live free of it ever again. Maybe you have been devastated by sorrow and loss beyond understanding you are convinced the darkness will never lift. Whatever it was that has held you captive, whether you overcame it eventually or needed to see a therapist or are now living under an assumed identity, it’s safe to say you don’t want to ever go through anything like that again. As well you probably would never wish anything like it on anyone else. But that crushing sadness and envy and anger, that consuming shame and guilt, that devastating sorrow and loss has landed you in the margins, away from life in its fullness, and God at arm’s length.
People can be viciously tribal at times. When we identify with those we consider our own, we can be lavish in our expressions of acceptance and loyalty. But when we want to keep outsiders and strangers away, sometimes for legitimate reasons but sometimes for no reason at all, we can be over-the-top mean and heartless and condescending. We continue to witness human society’s gradual descent into crippling mistrust and disunity primarily because we insist on being right in everything, which convinces us those with whom we disagree must be wrong in everything. And unless we knowingly and intentionally adjust our own attitude, unless we decide to open the door again, reconciliation and healing will never be possible. There will always be an us and them. And Christmas is just another date on the calendar.
We mark this day, the birth of the glorious Son of God, with great rejoicing. But do we grasp what God desires for us? Do we welcome the transformation God invites us to embrace? If all is right in the world, God can leave us well alone. But if we sit in the margins burdened with sadness and darkness and despair, Jesus was born for us. As a child he came from the margins of society to announce we are outsiders no more.
The children of Abraham have throughout human history been the brunt of their neighbors’ cruelty and sport. Israel is the ultimate outsider, despised and rejected by the glorious empires and powerful kingdoms in every age. I guess things are different now that they have nuclear weapons and the unequivocal support of the most powerful nation in the world. But it was exactly their irrelevance and insignificance that moved God to choose them and bind them to himself, so they couldn’t claim any credit for their favored status. And in the farthest margins of that marginal society, God took on our flawed nature to reach out to those who never belonged, the lame, the blind, the hungry, lepers and outcasts, tax collectors and prostitutes, children and the poor, to offer them God’s embrace in welcome and mercy. “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate.’ But you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse.”
If we detect no sympathy in our hearts for those in the margins, perhaps it’s because we have never been in the margins ourselves. Or we take personal credit for changing our fortunes with sheer determination and the sweat of our brow. We could be more mindful of the person sitting down from us who struggles with anxiety, or the one sitting in front of us who lost a loved one to COVID, or the one sitting behind us who identifies as trans, or the one who isn’t here because a good Christian told them God can’t ever forgive their sin. Christmas is about the Holy Child born in a stable come to raise to glory those who live in the margins of society.
This coming year the Holy Father invites us to walk alongside those who live in the margins, to give them their rightful place among us, to help lift their burdens, to welcome them as sisters and brothers, mindful that the Holy Child born an outsider restores all outsiders to their rightful place among his people. Join our efforts here or at your home parish to gather input for the Synod of Bishops so all God’s family can come home and journey together in mutual support and unity.
On this holy night, I invite us to call to mind with compassion that one person or two who live in the margins of God’s love. As the Holy Child of Bethlehem is to us, so we should be to them God’s welcome and mercy, Emmanuel God-with-us.
Rolo B Castillo © 2021