During the Christmas holidays, several news outlets carried an article about Rudy Giuliani reading the Christmas story at a children’s home in Harlem. The heart-warming headline was followed by a story explaining that he is following up on a 14-year tradition. Every December Giuliani goes to the children’s home to read “Twas the Night before Christmas” to children is a nice gesture. On Christmas Eve, my father-in-law read us all the Christmas story and charged us to read it every year, even after he is gone from this earth. But he was not reading what Rudy Giuliani was reading. “Twas the Night before Christmas” is not the real Christmas story.
For those who have forgotten, the Christmas story is set in a little Palestinian town called Bethlehem. It’s a musical, which opens with a young woman singing her joy at being chosen to bear a special child. It continues with a rousing number sung from the very heavens by a choir of angelic beings.
The amazing thing is that the Christmas child is no mere baby–he is the very incarnation of God. Our Creator, who cared for us and was rejected by us, sought to rectify the situation by becoming one of us. God could have come down here as a judge bent on revenge. Instead, the Divine took on human flesh, entering our world and our timeline as a helpless, bloody infant.
The Christmas story pre-dates “Twas the Night before Christmas” by a couple of thousand years. That’s not to say I don’t like Santa. He has rosy cheeks and a big, round belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly. What’s not to like? We can hardly blame Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus or his predecessor Saint Nicholas for the commercialization of the holiday.
Christmas commercialism extends beyond our own families. Now we have every church, school, business and civic group raising money and toys to make sure that poor children have their share of commercialism, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I like gifts. Baby Jesus received a few nice gifts that Christmas morning, and I think we ought to continue the tradition. Giving gifts to those who cannot buy their own is an especially caring idea–much better than racking your brain to find that special something for a person who already has everything.
Even stray cats receive a little Christmas love. A few weeks ago, my son spotted a little black kitten in the Ingles parking lot. We have a one-pet rule, which is already broken by the proliferation of semi-domesticated raccoons that occupy our back porch every evening. The answer was no–but it was Christmas, and the kitten looked so small and helpless. As my son approached, the cat darted into the culvert and looked back at us with golden eyes. She was right where she wanted to be.
I was moved when my sister called to tell me that someone was setting out cat food for “the little black kitten who lives in the culvert at Ingles.” I didn’t know anyone else knew about the kitten, but I soon learned that my mother and my sister both tried to catch it. Now I wonder just how many of my neighbors saw the Ingles kitten and longed to help. Christmas brings that out in us.
I also like the fragrances of evergreen and hot cider, the incessant ringing of the Salvation Army bell and the holiday sales. I like my Aunt Odette’s traditional oyster dressing and thin gravy. I like that my brother flies down from Boston, crisp and cosmopolitan in his black wool coat. I like the Christmas music playing in the background, and the sparkle in the children’s eyes as they examine every ornament on Grandmother’s tree.
But sometimes in all the excitement, we forget about the baby. Even in our churches, where the choir has been practicing a Christmas cantata for months and the purple candles are lit by a different family each week, we can miss the point: Emmanuel, God with us. That baby was divinity wrapped in human flesh. A holy God, that we could never reach or touch, came down to intersect our lives.
Our response was not very good back then, either. The inn-keepers all turned the poor travelers away–all except for one, who had only enough compassion to point them toward a barn. A few shepherds showed up, and later an untold number of magi (the Bible never says three) arrived to honor the Christ-child. The rest of the world could not hear his thin cries above the hubbub of the crowd traveling home to pay their taxes. God came to earth, and learned there was no room for him here.
In fact, when the reigning king learned of his birth, all the newborns in town were slaughtered in an attempt to kill Jesus. The young parents took the baby and fled to a foreign land. If the Egyptians had deported them, we might not singing “Silent Night.”
Is there room for Christ today? In Cincinnati, Rev. Larry Kreps is under fire for providing food and shelter to illegal immigrants who were fleeing a raid. Some members of John Wesley United Methodist Church were uncomfortable with their church building being used to provide sanctuary for “illegals.” Kreps admits that he was conflicted when the desperate families appeared on his doorstep. “Of course we’re coming into Christmas and the question: ‘Is there room at the inn?,'” Kreps said. “I’d rather be someone who makes room somewhere.”
Many churches, food banks and private organizations have already faced this question. Some have answered with a resounding “No room.” They use citizenship as a qualifier for who can receive assistance. This is accomplished by requiring vouchers, social security cards, or other identifying information to prove citizenship.
Republicans and Libertarians who oppose welfare often state that it is the job of churches–not governments–to provide charitable help to those in need. As the government responds to public pressure to deport illegal immigrants, split up families and deny even emergency medical assistance, Christian churches will have the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of their convictions.
What we will do for the sick and the hungry among us? Will we look at the color of their skin and demand identification? Will we refuse to feed the hungry man who has no Social Security number? Will we turn away sick children because their parents were born in another land?
Whatever a person believes about government welfare, the responsibility of Christians is clear. Jesus warned us that “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45)
The families on the doorstep of John Wesley United Methodist Church looked up at Rev. Kreps with dark eyes filled with hope and fear. He smiled, because he knew he was looking into the eyes of Jesus.
Jeannie Babb Taylor is a wife, a mother, entrepreneur and writer in Ringgold, Ga. This column is adapted from her blog, “On the Other Hand.”