This holiday season, in the midst of our ever-repeating mass shootings and debates about the welcoming of Syrian refugees, I have seen a meme, a pithy quote, a bumper sticker time and time again amidst my fellow liberals:
“If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about Middle Eastern people seeking refuge being turned away by the heartless.”
Similarly, many have posted pictures of nativity scenes with a tongue-in-cheek quip, “I’m so glad people are placing these lawn ornaments in their yards to indicate that they welcome refugees into their homes.”
Myriad articles have been published encouraging Christians to remember our calling to welcome the refugee, and as an ordained clergywoman, I affirm these thoughts. I believe it is our responsibility, as Christians and particularly as feminist Christians, to welcome the marginalized, the oppressed, the refugee. I am also a strong believer in the separation of church and state, a distinctive imperative both to my Baptist tradition and to my home country of the United States. So, in many ways, it doesn’t really matter politically that my faith tradition teaches me to welcome the refugee because my country is not a Christian nation, but it does matter that the primary symbol of my country—the Statue of Liberty—proclaims boldly and without apology: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It seems that much of the essence of my faith tradition and my country embolden me to welcome the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the refugee. Even if they’re from Syria. Especially if they’re from Syria.
To me, this seems obvious, but too many in our country, and within my faith tradition, it is taboo, absurd, antithetical to all that the country or the Christian should stand for. While I think there is more nuancing necessary than what is embossed in the bumper sticker, meme, or pithy quote, I also think the essence rings true. Did Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus fit the exact definition one uses to describe refugees today? Probably not. Is the situation precisely the same? No. But I do think that there is something to be said about an unwed teenage mother finding refuge in an unlikely place in the face of wonder, misunderstanding, and chaos. I think there is something this unwed teenage mother, huddled with her infant in a dank and smelly manger (or so the story goes), can teach us about welcoming those who are different.
As that wildly unbelievable nativity story continues, we are also taught that “wise men” travel from “the East,” following an intrepid star to greet this newborn and his unwed teenage mother. These men from “the East” were also foreigners, different from any person Mary and Joseph had likely ever met. They probably looked differently, spoke differently, and certainly believed differently than Mary and Joseph’s friends, family, and community. And yet this young couple welcomed them, the strange foreigners at the door with odd gifts and unique beliefs and inconceivable claims of following the stars through foreign land. To me, both the harboring of the holy family—this unwed teenage mother, a bewildered father, and this newborn god—and the welcoming of the “wise men” are stories of what it means to look in the eyes of difference with an attitude of embrace and wonder rather than with an attitude of fear and exclusion. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the “wise men” teach us what it means to welcome and be welcomed.
For many feminists, this notion of welcome is a central tenant of Marian Spirituality, or a spirituality that focuses on Mary as a source of inspiration and empowerment. During the season of Advent and Christmas, I’m always reminded of her. This year in particular, as debates about whether or not persons and families fleeing war, violence, and persecution should be welcome on American soil, Mary offers a glimpse of hospitable hope. Culturally manifested from left to right as Mary, Guadalupe, La Negrita, Virgin de la Caridad, and Our Lady of Regla (their stories coming soon), these myriad Marys teach us to welcome to refugee, to cradle difference in an embrace, and to offer love, grace, and charity to the oppressed and marginalized.
These Marys are a vital part of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist and I would claim that all Holy Women Icons embolden us to welcome the stranger, to provide safe haven for the refugee, and to show love to those who are excluded. If we dare to be holy women ourselves, perhaps we should do the same.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B, and Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com