In the beginning, our sacred stories tell us, God created every human being in the image and likeness of God. Male and female, God created them: each an image of God alive and unique on this earth. This is arguably the most radical theological idea ever, because what follows is the ethical requirement for each of us to treat others as children of God. Come to think of it, it also means that we must treat ourselves as beloved and irreplaceable children of God. I think God looked at each one of you the day you were born and fell in love with you. I think God looked at you wondering: what aspect of myself will be revealed in this human being? How will this baby carry the divine into the world?
Can you remember the fist time you held a baby that you really, really loved? Your own child, a niece or nephew, or a younger sibling? Do you remember looking into that baby’s eyes and thinking, “whatever it takes to protect this beloved one, I will do it”? Now imagine knowing that a powerful man wants to hurt your baby. On purpose. That is the premise of the somber lullaby the choir sang, “Lully, Lullay”—the threat of violence turned on innocent children. That’s what Mary and Joseph faced when they knew they had to run to Egypt, to the place their people had once escaped from slavery. They had to leave their homeland, and the home of their ancestors, the place where their temple stood, and flee to a place whose language they didn’t speak, where they couldn’t worship in their temple, where they would carry the stigma of the foreigner. They had to make this journey alone through the desert, not knowing how the Egyptians would receive them. But that was still better than facing the anger and violence of King Herod. Better than risking the life of their new child.
The story of God’s people is one of repeated danger and exile. The patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—fled to Egypt several times because of famine. The early Israelites were enslaved there before God liberated them in the Exodus. But then they were threatened and exiled by another powerful kingdom. There is no other religious tradition that has been so affected by experiences of loss and exile, which is why the Bible is the first collection of texts that emphasize, over and over, people’s duty to care for and even love the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee.
So the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is another chapter in a long story of being uprooted and seeking safety in a foreign land. But they are not the only exiles in this story. God is also in exile.
Just as we did when we held beloved babies, Mary and Joseph looked into the eyes of their newborn son and knew they would do anything to save his life. In the same way, God looked into the eyes of every human being, those people created in God’s own image and likeness, and knew God would do whatever it took to save our lives. Even abandoning heaven and going into exile in creation, in the world, in us.
What this means is that the story of God’s love for us is dynamic—it is about crossing borders, breaking rules, making the last first and many who are first, last. It is about breaking down walls: the walls separating us from one another, human from human, and the walls separating humanity from God. From the creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness to the birth of a baby who is in fact somehow human and divine at once, the story God has been telling us through Scripture is about all the ways God is trying to awaken us to the divinity in each other.
The Christ Child is God’s most radical call to us of all. It is the call to recognize the dignity and worth of every human being, including a little brown baby in an occupied territory, one who will soon become a refugee. God looks at us out of the eyes of that child and asks for us to love him, to protect him, to make the world safer for him and all the other little babies born into poverty and pain. God stands at all the walls that divide us from each other and begs us: let God in.
What does that look like? It is to embrace the gift of the divine we were given at our own birth, to reach out with it to each other. In grown-up Jesus’ own words it looks like feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, welcoming in the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the prisoner. As Jesus says, “whatever you do to the least of these, who are my family, you do to me as well.” That is the ethic of Christmas, the message of the holy child: Christ is with and within everyone who is hungry or thirsty or naked or sick, every stranger at the gate, everyone behind bars. Come let us adore him, the vulnerable one. Come, let us clothe and feed him. Come, let us welcome him in and make him at home. This Christmas, look around you. Look for God. Let God in.