Methodist minister Geoffrey Ainger wrote a Christmas song as part of a drama he composed for his youth group. In the play, Mary and Joe arrive in London on the subway and the baby is born in a room above a gas station, borrowed for a few hours. Here’s the first verse of the song: “Born in the night, Mary’s child, a long way from your home. Coming in need, Mary’s child, born in a borrowed room.”
As Luke writes, “There was no place for them.” No place in the inn. Also, no nurses, or midwives, no grandmothers or grandfathers. No joyous family gathered around. No cradle—the baby was laid in a pig trough. Maybe no food; the parents were that poor. There was truly no place for them to belong. In this foreign city, Joseph and Mary were strangers, with strange culture and language, different skin color and hair texture. They were pawns of an empire intent on counting bodies, quantifying labor, and extracting wealth. There was no place, in these calculations, for the humanity of this peasant family.
Now, the city of Aleppo isn’t far from Bethlehem, not far at all. About 330 miles north-northeast. And on this Christmas night, I find that I am haunted by the children of this ruined city, children for whom there also seems to be no place. Did you see the picture of five-year-old Omran some months ago? Having been pulled from the rubble, he sits silently, with his hands in his lap, his bare feet dangling off the edge of a too-big chair. His arms and legs, shorts and t-shirt are covered with dust. Layers of dried blood and dirt coat his face. His eyes are dull, his lips pursed shut. His expression is calm, too calm. As one reporter put it, “Surrounded by shouting, he’s completely still.” When an American boy, Alex, saw this image in the news, he was moved to respond.
“Dear President Obama,” Alex wrote,
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce Omran to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan. Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip-gloss penguin, which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it. Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come! Alex, 6 years old.
“Oh, Alex!” the part of me that’s a little too grown up wants to sigh, “it’s more complicated than that.” Still, the connection between these two boys is beautiful. Quite simply, Alex saw himself in Omran. He was unaware of all the practical difficulties; he didn’t filter his response through a political lens; and he was naïve to the trauma of removing a child from his culture, land, and family. He just put himself in Omran’s situation, imagined how he would feel, and considered what he himself would need. Alex recognized the refugee in himself. He connected with that deep place in his own heart, and the heart of every person, that cries out for refuge, for shelter and safety, for home.
“There was,” Luke writes of the holy family, “no place for them.” This, my friends, is the human situation. For some of us, this marginalization is immediate, and life-threatening. Others of us—who don’t live with war, who haven’t been forced from our homes, who are not in danger of being deported—have to look a bit harder to see the truth: that we are all immigrants and refugees, migrants and sojourners. We are all the children of Aleppo: the curly-haired toddler whose parents are missing. The young teen roaming the halls of a hospital, clutching the body of his infant brother. What breaks my heart, and breaks through my own denial about our human vulnerability, is the recognition I see in their eyes, in the twist of their mouths. They are lost; they are alone in a way they weren’t before. Someone they love is missing, someone whose job it always was to reassure them in their moments of bewilderment, and to hold them through their pain.
In every person, there is a refugee, a cry for shelter and safety, a yearning for home. Listen. Listen within yourself for a moment. What loss are you grieving? For what part of yourself do you feel there is no room? How are you marginalized, dismissed? What refuge do you need? This Christmas night, remember: God is with us making room for a peasant family for whom there is no place. God is a refugee AND God is our true refuge. God is born in grief and rejection. God is born amid danger. And God is born when, against all the odds, we reach out, and create a place of welcome for each other. Amen.