Over the past several months, the governor of Texas and other federal agencies have stepped up their efforts to address the increase in U.S. border crossings by Central and South American migrants. These efforts included the installation of razor-wire barriers between floating buoys in the Rio Grande, a measure that cost more than a billion dollars; arresting migrants on trespassing charges; and busing them to Democrat-led cities. Meanwhile, according to CNN.com, 2022 was the most lethal year so far for migrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border, with at least 748 people dead.
I admit I never cared much about immigration issues until three or four years ago, when I began volunteering with Catholic Charities Atlanta. I worked at an after-school program in nearby Clarkston, Georgia, home to more than 2,300 of the state’s nearly 28,000 refugees. This experience gave me new insight into the realities of migrants’ lives.
During my time with Catholic Charities, I also recognized in a new and palpable way the nature of Advent, a season that calls us to see Jesus Emmanuel, “God with us,” in every person we meet. With each passing week, the image of my Savior became increasingly clear to me in the people with whom I worked. As time went by, the figure changed from that of a distant stranger to a familiar face, one I was responsible for loving and nurturing. The smiles and giggles of children—so eager to wrap their arms around me in unconditional love and receive my love in return—revealed something to me about the nature of this liturgical season. I understood a little more deeply the miracle to which it points and celebrates: the incarnation.
When discussing immigration, we sometimes fall into the trap of “othering” people who find themselves directly affected by these situations of displacement. Sometimes, such othering results from ignorance, or it may be fueled by the fear of perceived differences, whether cultural, racial, ethnic, or religious. Often we filter our beliefs through whatever political lens we’ve opted to use, expressing our loyalty to abstract principles and viewpoints. And yet politics and the laws that govern our current political landscape always take shape in the concrete realities of human lives. Real lives are always at stake, and we must consider those lives first before we offer any opinions based on partisan politics.
Advent is a time of active waiting. The interim between the initial birth of our expectations and the fulfillment of our long-awaited hope ought to become a space where we foster compassion. In Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart (Ballantine), he offers us this description of compassion: “We have to die [to our neighbor] . . . [which] means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” He goes on to say that true compassion is birthed out of surrender when we lay down our prejudices and biases. Only then can we experience for ourselves Christ’s radical solidarity with others.
Back in 2017, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement on immigration, calling for the church to remember Christ’s presence at the center of migrants’ lived experiences. The document highlights the biblical account of the holy family’s experience as refugees in Egypt, along with Jesus’ call in Matthew 25:35–36 to welcome the stranger in his name. The bishops’ proclamations are not only biblical but also grounded in the church’s social teachings, which maintain that all people possess an intrinsic dignity. Rooted in this dignity are basic human rights that are continuously denied migrants and refugees.
The USCCB’s statement reminds me that the miracle of the incarnation is intimately tied to the eucharistic reality at the center of our faith. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection reoccur not only in the sacramental re-membering of his body in the eucharistic meal but also in and through us when we go out and become his body in the world.
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We repeat these words every Sunday during Mass—but while working with Catholic Charities, I began to understand this mystery in a new way. The community of immigrants I served reminded me that Christ’s act of becoming like us in all things continues to take place. He suffers and dies in every person in pain and need; and he also rises to life anew, coming to us in unexpected ways through the people around us. In the mystery of death, resurrection, and new life—whether we experience it in the Eucharist, in the anticipation of Advent, or in the faces of other human beings—we discover the depth of divine mercy and love.
The gift of the incarnation summons us into loving relationship with one another and with all creation, which like us, “[groans] in labor pains” awaiting its redemption (Rom. 8:22). At the same time, the incarnation invites us to share God’s divine life. This is why our solidarity with oppressed people draws us into a more intimate communion with the Trinity. The incarnation is an ongoing call to participate in God’s life and work in the community of faith. As Paul Tillich asserts in Dynamics of Faith (HarperOne), “The expression of love is action. The mediating link between faith and works is love. . . . Love lives in works.”
During this season of Advent, may we deepen our capacity for compassion. And when our hope is transformed into fulfillment, may we be ready to welcome Jesus’ coming via acts of radical solidarity. When we finally understand that the incarnation is the mirror by which we learn to orient ourselves in loving relation with God, creation, and our neighbors, we will be ready to welcome Jesus in the faces of the migrants and refugees knocking at our literal or metaphorical doors.
Allow this season to birth in you the ability to see beyond our differences. Look into the heart of the incarnational mystery, where we are all one in and with Christ.
Image: Kelly Latimore