Sunday, January 4, 2015

Epiphany and Filoxenia: Entertaining Angels

Albert Decaris, Paris, 1953
The liturgical twelve days of Christmas bridge the start of the new year, with celebration of Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 and remembrance of the traveling magi twelve days later, on January 6 (celebrated today, Epiphany Sunday).

The narrative of the season, Matthew 2, recounts the arrival of the magi (kings, wise men, astrologers, “distinguished foreigners”) inJerusalem, their interview with Herod, their travel on to Bethlehem. After their departure, the story continues with Joseph’s response to an angelic warning to take Mary and infant Jesus to Egypt to escape the violence of Herod, where they stayed until Herod’s death and further angelic instruction to return to Israel.

Viewed from one perspective, it’s a fanciful story of mystical creatures and mythical travelers.

From another angle, it’s a story deeply embedded in its historical context: violent autocrat, porous borders, refugees on the move.

No mention in the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth certificate, of passports, of border patrols. His family, like the magis, simply vanished into the stream of travelers seeking food, safety, work, or wealth.

When we talk about “illegal aliens” we forget that up until the last century, all immigrants, everywhere, arrived without documentation: visas, passports, birth certificates.

My own grandfather arrived on Ellis Island in 1906 with little more than a name, an approximate date of birth, a vague explanation of place of origin (Northern Italy). My grandmother’s family lived for centuries along the waterways of New York, Ottawa and Quebec, unimpeded by our northern border.

Even now, there are people born in places where birth certificates aren’t routine. I’ve been praying with a family whose American son married a woman from Zambia, then discovered that without birth certificate a visa wasn’t possible.

Economist, Feb. 8, 2014
And I know children, born here, who may never meet their grandparents, because without a route to proper documentation, there is no way to cross borders and be sure of a return.

The 114th session of Congress started January 3, and one of the immediate questions will be this: Will there be immigration reform? And if so, what will it look like?

The US has been deporting undocumented immigrants at a rate of over one thousand a day for the past six years. I have trouble wrapping my brain around that number: one thousand fathers, mothers, children, every day, taken into custody, sent back to places where they may not be safe, may not be wanted, may have no way of finding food or shelter.

Human Rights Watch, for years, has documented US failure to comply with international treaties regarding immigration: 
While international law permits states to establish immigration policies and deportation procedures, it does not grant them discretion to violate human rights in the process. The United States regularly fails to uphold international human rights law in its immigration laws and enforcement policies, by violating the rights of immigrants to fair treatment at the hands of government, to proportional sanctions, to freedom from arbitrary detention, to respect for the right to family unity, and to protection from return to persecution. Such policies violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Refugee Convention, treaties to which the United States is party. 
At issue in Congress will be President Obama’s November 20 executive action offering a reprieve from deportation for some undocumented immigrants. Of this, Human Rights Watch US advocacy director Antonia Ginatta has said: 
President Obama’s plan to keep nearly 5 million immigrants and their families from being broken apart by deportation is a strike against arbitrary cruelty.  . . By ordering major reforms to immigration enforcement, Obama is improving public safety and making millions of people less vulnerable to abuse. 
Yet the president’s action offers to no legal route to citizenship, fails to address legal safeguards for agricultural guest workers, and allows “the summary deportation of asylum seekers arriving at the border.”

According to Ginatta, 
So long as the administration uses rapid-fire deportation procedures, prosecutes and incarcerates those already deportable, and detains entire families, hundreds of thousands of people will still suffer family separation and unfair treatment. Obama’s plan is a temporary reprieve for millions and a first step in the right direction, but the need for a more lasting and comprehensive solution remains. 
National Migration Week 2015
National Migration Week, sponsored by the US Roman Catholic Bishops, begins on Epiphany Sunday (today): “it reminds us that the Holy Family also endured migration, as they fled from Herod and the threat of violence.”

The Evangelical Immigration Table, representing a broad coalition of denominational leaders and non-profit organizations, offers this statement of principles for immigration reform
Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America. Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost.
 We urge our nation’s leaders to work together with the American people to pass immigration reform that embodies these key principles and that will make our nation proud.
  As evangelical Christian leaders, we call for a bipartisan solution on immigration that:
  • Respects the God-given dignity of every person
  • Protects the unity of the immediate family
  • Respects the rule of law
  • Guarantees secure national borders
  • Ensures fairness to taxpayers
  • Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents 
Thinking and praying about borders, migrants, refugees, and the Biblical command to welcome the stranger, I found myself tracking down the Greek origin of the word translated “hospitality.”

We think of hospitality as offering a meal to someone we know, entertaining guests we’ve chosen.

But the Greek word is “philoxenia” or “filoxenia”: love of the foreigner, or sojourner, or person far from home.  

It’s a word still in use, one I found defined this way:   
Filoxenia (φιλοξενιά, say: fee-lohk-sen-YAH), that literally means "love of strangers," is a generosity of spirit, a joyful kind of the-best-of-what's-mine-is-yours attitude in which Greeks take great pride as a defining attribute.
Filoxenia is the reason strangers walking by may find themselves invited to a Greek family celebration. Filoxenia is the reason obviously lost tourists may acquire a volunteer tour guide. And filoxenia is the reason that guests in even the poorest Greek home will certainly find themselves presented with the best of whatever food is on hand - from the simplest cheese, bread, and olives, to many dishes created as though from air. 
I experienced this filoxenia firsthand during a trip last March in Greece: gifts of wild lavender and other flowers, an invitation to coffee, raki and mezethes with someone I’d just met, complimentary desserts and drinks in restaurants along the way, more food than anyone could eat provided by our gracious hosts.

Hebrews 13:2 says “Don’t forget to filoxenia – to entertain/welcome/feed and shelter strangers – for by so doing some have entertained angels unaware.” The verse points back to Abraham, creating an impromptu meal for three mysterious visitors passing by his tent. But it also points to Jesus’ own teaching: that in caring for the stranger, we care for him as well.

What if our immigration policy reflected filoxenia?

What if laws were based on our unshakeable love of the person far from home?

What if our borders revealed a joyful desire to share the best of what we have?

And what if our determined, generous welcome opened the door to avenues of instruction enjoyed by those who entertained angels unaware?

Ah, yes, I must be naïve. I’ve heard that word before.

Yet, what I’ve seen of the kingdom of God is that it upends our logical assessments, our confidence in our own force and reason, and offers new ways of being, new ways of seeing. Invites us to embrace rather than exclude, to forgive rather than fear, to welcome with love rather than wall off with contempt.

So again -  what if our fear of others closes us off from fully enjoying the best God has to offer us?

What if closed borders close out and silence the divine messengers we most need to hear?

While some Christians find themselves repeating the partisan platforms of exclusion and suspicion, there have always been followers of Christ committed to offering sanctuary to those who need it, determined to find room for those undocumented travelers who find their way to our borders.

Not sure?

This would be a good time to learn more about the realities of our current immigration policy

To encourage constructive dialogue:   

To pray for and support real reform:   

My prayer is that the year ahead will be a time to re-envision welcome, to celebrate and demonstrate filoxenia, the joyful, generous love of the stranger. 

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.  (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, 1966, 72)

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