There used to be a fascinating museum, in a defunct Catholic school in the worst part of Columbus. I hope it’s still there.
This was a museum of Catholic history: statues and Bibles and Communion rails, stained glass, thuribles, mannequins in nuns’ habits, a whole giant bin of those annoying ratchet noisemakers that used to be used instead of the altar servers’ bells on Holy Thursday. There were Catholic school desks, the kind that were bolted to the floor. There was a statue of a bishop in green that everyone mistook for Saint Patrick, unless you knew that the three apples in his hand meant he was a depressingly Latin representation of Saint Nicholas.
The priest had collected these things from churches that threw them out after the reforms associated with Vatican Two. He kept them in the defunct school building that came attached to his parish. To see them all, he charged the admission price of a donation to his soup kitchen– the museum was open by appointment only, but the soup kitchen served meals every day of the week and held Bible studies in the evenings.
Once, when I visited, he showed me an elaborate church Nativity scene.
“This is the only Nativity scene I’ve ever had that includes an elephant,” he said proudly.
The elephant was part of the company of the Three Wise Men; I think it was Gaspar’s mount. The other two Magi had a camel and a horse. I admired it, because I love elephants. But I admired another of the Nativity scene’s anomalies even more.
The plaster Archangel Gabriel suspended from the roof of the creche carried a banner, as Archangel Gabriel usually does in such compositions. But this banner had an odd misspelling. Instead of “Gloria in Excelcis,” or “Glory in the Highest,” which is what the Gospel says the angels cried, an illiterate craftsmen had accidentally painted “Gloria in Exsilia.”
The priest said that that would actually translate as something like “Glory to the Exile,” if the grammar had been correct.
“Though it’s rather appropriate,” said the priest who ran a soup kitchen in the worst part of Columbus. “Because we’re all exiles.”
And he was right.
We are, all of us, exiles. You are, and so am I. From the moment our first parents found themselves outside Paradise, we have been exiles. And, at Christmas, the Lord in His mercy came to join us in our Exile.
All Glory be to that Holy Exile.
And then what happened? That holy Child, His mother and His foster father became exiles in a different, awkwardly visible way. It’s a way we don’t like to admit, because it has so many uncomfortable implications for how we treat the least and lowest in our society.
There has been a silly debate raging on the internet lately, about whether the Most Holy Theotokos and Saint Joseph actually carried their baby out of the Roman Empire, making them illegal immigrants, or not. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether they crossed the border from the Roman Empire to someplace not the Empire or stayed within the jurisdiction of Rome. They did break the law, which demanded they stay put and turn their baby over for execution. They did defy the legitimate local authority, Herod, who was only trying to keep order and prevent an insurrection. They did not have permission to run away from Bethlehem. In gross violation of law and order, they ran away, rushed the border carrying a contraband baby whom the Law said shouldn’t exist, and lived in hiding until Herod’s death. They migrated in violation of the law, in order to commit a crime: the crime of saving Jesus. They were illegal immigrants.
The Christ Child spent His first three years in exile, in hiding so that nobody would realize who He was and turn Him over to law enforcement. We are not told what He, His mother and His foster father suffered during that time. It surely wasn’t easy for them. Imagine being a mother for the very first time, learning to breastfeed and soothe your tiny newborn, on the run. Imagine comforting a squalling infant in hiding, separated from your whole family and anyone who might be able to comfort you, knowing that if the wrong person hears His cries, He’ll be killed. Imagine taking refuge in a strange place, the homeland of your traditional enemies, where people speak a different language and worship different gods, a place where you might not be able to earn a living, with a baby in tow. Imagine going into exile, totally dependent on the kindness of people who are not known for being kind. And imagine you had to do this because the alternative was watching your child die in front of you.
When Christ entered the world as a Child, He did so as an exile. He did this to suffer with all of us who are exiles in this fallen world. And He also did this to give a special dignity to those who are exiles in a more immediate, visible way. From the flight into Egypt until Christ comes again, those who have to leave everything behind and flee for their lives to an inhospitable place bear the icon of Christ, His Mother and Holy Saint Joseph. Whatsoever we do to the refugees and migrants among us– whether it’s convenient or not because it never is, whether it’s safe for us or not because the works of mercy are never safe, whether or not they’re “legal” because He wasn’t either– we do to Christ.
This is a very hard saying, but our salvation depends upon accepting it.
If you’d like to honor Christ in the exiles living among us on this Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, you can donate to the following charities:
Immigrant Families Together works to reunite families victimized by the president’s family separation policy at the Southern border, then finds them housing and provides for their other needs while their asylum requests are being processed.
RAICES provides legal representation to migrants, unaccompanied children, and refugees.
All Glory be to the Son of God who came to share in our exile. May all men and women of goodwill serve Him in the exiles among us, until He returns.
(image via Pixabay)