“God chose to be born among those displaced by political events to change our perception of history once for all”
Among the wealth of historical and geographical details surrounding Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel there is a passing mention of Syria (Luke 2.2) which had never caught my attention until I became friends with Faraj, a 22-year old Syrian young man. He fled Aleppo under falling bombs and was separated from his family. When the time came to cross the Mediterranean Sea he was frightened to see that the boat was dangerously overcrowded, but the smugglers put a gun to his head and forced him to board it anyway. He was held prisoner in refugee camps in Hungary and Turkey where, as he told me, was treated like an animal. In the end he was welcomed by a Jewish family in the UK. Faraj is a faithful Muslim. He fasts during Ramadan, goes to the mosque on Fridays and to the synagogue with his foster parents on Saturdays. His family is now in Egypt but he cannot be reunited with them because Faraj is gay and would face certain death at the hands of one of his relatives or neighbours. The striking thing about him, however, is that far from breaking his spirit, this whole experience has led him to choose God, love, and life unconditionally. Whoever meets him is refreshed by the joy and the positivity he radiates.
Faraj’s story is Jesus’ story. The dynamics of power described in the gospel remain depressingly familiar: the political choices and blunders of contemporary leaders cause as much distress, displacement, rejection and death today as they did then. God chose to be born among those displaced by political events to change our perception of history once for all. The angels telling us where to find the Lord this Christmas say: “this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a refugee camp” (cf. Luke 2.12). Our media and books tell history from the perspectives of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. The Gospel turns this viewpoint upside down and relates history from the side of the people for whom “there still is no room in our inns” (Luke 2.7).
But Faraj’s story is also good news, ‘gospel’, because it invites us to acknowledge the seeds of grace God sows in the hearts of all people of good will, whatever their religion or personal convictions.
We often opt for a version of our faith that excludes, as when we attribute a monopoly on truth to the church we belong to. Instead, the Gospel teaches us that the most authentic version of our faith is the one that includes because it reveals a God who embraces all of humanity and wants every person to be saved (1 Timothy 2.4). Undoubtably, our churches, our preaching and our love are the means through which God fulfils this purpose. But before all forms of human mediation, God himself remains the “light of the whole of human race” (John 1.4), who delights in speaking to everyone “in various ways” (Hebrews 1.1) and who inspires every person of good will through his wisdom which, as the books of Proverbs enchantingly puts it, “finds joy in the company of human children” (Proverbs 8.31). Jesus was, after all, a voiceless infant when he moved and summoned wise men from the East (Matthew 2.1) through the morning star that rose in their hearts (cf. 2 Peter 1.19).
Nothing more gospel-like then than seeing in those we are so reticent to welcome or discriminate against still now the signs of the infant for whom we had no room 2000 years ago. And also nothing more catholic than recognizing God’s action in the ways in which, in the heart of our Muslim brother Faraj, homophobia and rejection has not yielded resentment but produced instead the most unambiguous expression of God’s authentic love, truth and grace, that is forgiveness.