For many Americans nurtured within a religious tradition, December is the month of lights. Much is made of the lighting of candles and the imagery of light generally as our days shorten relentlessly, for at the heart of authentic religious practice is the experience of enlightenment, of coming to see the truth that has formerly been hidden. Stories are shared like this one:
An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” the rabbi answered again.
“Then when is it?” the pupils demanded.
“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
As a case study consider that U.S. border agents recently tossed tear gas at our southern border from hundreds of yards away at people who are fleeing authentic and disturbing violence most Americans only see in fiction. People are fleeing this violence and were welcomed at the border with tear gas, left coughing and sputtering, some with toddlers in arms. A question in our season of lights: Can we look into their faces and see a sister or brother?
That’s the sort of enlightenment that comes with Advent as we anticipate the arrival of a child born of poor parents who would themselves flee for their lives as refugees. Do you remember that part of the story? It comes after the angels and the shepherds when Herod the King ordered a mass slaughter of children (Matthew 2:13-15). We’ve so sentimentalized the Christmas creche that we’ll gloss over this most explicitly realistic episode with haunting resonance around our world today: children and families at peril fleeing for their lives.
As the story is told, the refugees, Mary and Joseph, found shelter and safety in Egypt, along with the infant who would grow into the one named “light of the world…”