18 Dec Christmas Letter of the Minister General 2018
The Christmas of a God who knocks on our doors
Dear brothers and sisters,
May the Lord born among us give you his Peace!
Out of infinite love God desired to assume our human nature with all that this implies. He was born in the greatest humility of a poor woman and in a poor place, far from home, because his parents were on their way to fulfil their civic duties imposed by the authorities of the time. While still a new-born he found himself living as a refugee in Egypt: (cf. Mt 2:13-15). Matthew, alone among the Evangelists, narrates this event through the genre of a theology of exodus. Egypt represented the place of refuge for the persecuted or those in difficulty and victims of famine: some examples in this regard are the figures of Jeroboam (cf. 1 Kings 11:40) and Uriah (cf. Jer 26:21), as well as the family of Jacob who were forced to abandon the land of Canaan when it was decimated by famine (cf. Gen 46:8 ff.).
The theology of exodus permeates the revelation of Jesus, who is presented as the liberating God, “the One who is” (cf. Jn 8:28). The evangelist John offers us this interpretative key because he shapes the theology of his Gospel based on the revelation that God himself gave to Moses (cf. Ex 3:14). The God who became flesh in the midst of his people is the One who continues to listen to the cry of his sons and daughters whose lives are under threat. In the theology of exodus, we find different traditions that reflect real events. God is always present and is the central character of history. He hears the cry of his people, goes down to see their suffering at first-hand and brings them out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery (cf. Ex 20:2).
Thus, the experience of the exodus is a paradigm for all the various situations of people who are forced to flee their homeland escaping threats to their lives, hunger, violence, persecutions, wars and armed conflicts, or for other reasons.
Jesus, presented as the “new Moses” (cf. Heb 3:1-6), is the guide of God’s people and a new lawgiver (cf. Mk 12:28, 34; Mt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28; Mt 7:12). Moreover, Matthew links the history of the people of Israel in which God’s action is revealed, with the story of the “new people of Israel” where the action of the risen Jesus Christ is manifested in the Church and in the world (cf.Mt 19:28; 28:20).
In the Lucan account, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in a very definite historical moment, when Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinius governor of Syria. Luke says that the new-born child is laid “in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). The shepherds nearby (cf. Lk 2:8-17) see a star that guides them to the Light of the world: a star of hope for the poor, for the humble, for simple workers and for all those who are in darkness.
Saint Francis wanted to relive the reality of Christmas, recreating the bitter cold location, devoid of a cradle, chairs, and doors, but warmed by the presence of an ox and a donkey next to the manger. The Saint of Assisi wanted to see, touch and contemplate the God who decided to come and live among his sons and daughters to offer them the fullness of life. And Greccio echoes the happy and ringing announcement: all humanity can truly live, can rejoice and celebrate with their loved ones, with friends and with all of creation. The birth of Jesus is a mystery of love, of grace and of liberation, a summary of the power of God’s action in the world.
Blessed John Duns Scotus, through his theological reflection, teaches that the reason of the Incarnation of the Son of God cannot be simply human sin. Such an interpretation would run the risk of limiting the Creator’s will, which consists in God’s desire to love his children and enter into communion with them (cf. Reportata Parisiensia, in III Sent.). This is why Jesus is presented as “Summum Opus Dei,” the full manifestation of Trinitarian love for the human being. Jesus’s deeds revealed an unconditional divine love that is open to all, a figure of God’s universal salvific will.
Nevertheless, the Saviour of the world arrived among his own but was not accepted, other than by Mary, Joseph, the animals, and the shepherds. The obligation to leave his homeland is an anticipation of all the adversities that he would have to face later. Matthew’s account (cf. Mt 2:13-15) identifies the representatives of political power as the ones who threatened Jesus. However, we all know that politicians of the day are backed up and supported by power groups or even entire societies. These threats to Jesus speak to us of indifference, of distorted fears and of confused forms of selfishness that become a need to invent enemies to fight.
In our time many children are forced to flee their country where their sacred rights are trampled on: their right to a healthy life, a united family, a quality education; the right to grow in a society that welcomes them, offers and demands respect, one that creates opportunities for everyone. All children should be born and grow up in societies that are places of living love, solidarity, co-responsibility, justice and peace. For this to be possible we need to look deeply, filled with humanity. We are called to look at people as they really are: “the image and likeness” of God who created us “for his true and holy love” (cf. RnB 23:1-3).
Unfortunately, many societies of today’s world are not capable of doing this. On the contrary, we see indifference towards the other (cf. EG 54), disguised by empty speeches and totally devoid of any real commitment. Humanity itself that craves progress ends up forgetting about the individual human being, or at best relegates them to the background. The strenuous and exclusive defence of their own interests and benefits by social groups and individuals increases conflicts and leads inevitably towards the conclusion: “I am right, and the other is wrong; I am the friend and the other the enemy; I live in love and the other lives in hate.”
Many peoples and nations lock themselves in within their walls to protect themselves from any perceived enemy. This practice, triggered by a sense of protection, leads to isolation and prevents the development of each member. It precludes any likelihood of taking advantage of opportunities for improvement and obstructs the path of taking responsibility for mutual respect (cf. EG 186-192). On the other hand, few leaders and societies remember what happened in the past to their own countrymen and women that were forced to migrate to escape violence, persecution, hunger, war and internal conflicts. Most of them tend to close their borders, refusing entry to people who are fleeing and migrating in the hope of finding new opportunities to live, to be nourished, to start over, and to live with basic human dignity.
Sadly, we hear our leaders, or their representatives describe migrants and refugees as a threat, as thieves, criminals, enemies or terrorists; sometimes, they are even shamefully compared to animals. This only serves to increase fear of the other, of the different. It triggers anger that then turns into hate because the other comes to disturb us in our “comfort zones.” This is a clear sign that we are facing what many contemporary thinkers describe as societies in crisis. What scares me, besides the inhumanity of these attitudes, is the fact that most people remain silent in the face of this, becoming accomplices; or, even worse, applauding their leaders and voting for those representatives. And these leaders become sources of inspiration and example for others; often the mass media emphasize all of this and the truth nearly always ends up being hidden, just as many politicians want.
Among the serious inconsistencies of the so-called developed countries, which close their borders to migrants and refugees, there is also a silence or complicity towards the arms industry. Knowing that millions of people, including many children, must flee because of armed conflicts, they continue to allow or even promote the production and export of weapons.
Dear brothers and sisters, it is time to give a human, Christian and Franciscan response to the situation of today’s migrants and refugees. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we really understand what it means to live for years without hope in a refugee camp (as in Kenya, South Sudan and elsewhere). Do we know what it means to stand in front of a wall that prevents people from passing, or in front of a barbed wire fence that proclaims the cruelty and ruthlessness of exclusion, indifference, and self-centredness?
Let us never forget what Pope Francis said during his memorable visit to Lampedusa: “The globalization of indifference makes us all “unnamed,” responsible, yet nameless and faceless. “Where are you?” “Where is your brother?” These are the two questions which God asks at the dawn of human history, and which he also asks each man and woman in our own day, which he also asks us. […] Herod sowed death to protect his own comfort, his own soap bubble. And so it continues… Let us ask the Lord to remove the part of Herod that lurks in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this.”
Finally, I would like to recall what was said by the Plenary Council of the Order 2018: “As human beings and as Franciscans, we are deeply touched and involved in the hopes, anxieties and sufferings of many migrants and refugees. We know that we must welcome them and receive them with kindness and generosity, according to the example of Christ and the spirit of St. Francis, who invites us to be happy when we live “among people considered of little value and looked down upon, among the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside.” (cf. Rnb 9:2).” (PCO 2018, 119).
Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was forced to flee and to migrate. Today He is present in every migrant and in every refugee: it is still He who knocks insistently at the door of our so-called Christian or culturally Christian societies. The Child Jesus shows us the way that can lead to a future of peace, of welcoming, of dialogue, and of openness to the other, which can enrich everyone.
God, who accompanied his people in the exodus, is now accompanying migrants and refugees in their search for protection and freedom. The message of Christmas invites us to open our hearts and our homes to our brothers and sisters who are far from their countries, offering them closeness and solidarity. The message of Christmas invites us to never reject anyone out of fear or hatred.
May the Saviour, who became one of us, enlighten the path of those who are forced to migrate and make us joyful in contemplating his face in our brothers and sisters who are suffering, weeping and seeking a more human life!
Rome, 12 December 2018.
Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Br. Michael A. Perry, OFM
Minister General and Servant
Image: Flight into Egypt, painting in Saint Anthony Formation House, Langata, Kenya