A lesson about welcoming strangers

Often parents must move during a school year; this necessitates that younger children enroll at a new school. When Jimmy or Sally come to class, the teacher will introduce the child, welcoming the newcomer to the learning community. The other students will have various reactions to this new arrival. Although Jimmy is a stranger, some students will welcome him as one of their own. Because Sally is new, some students will be fearful of her and how she might change their classroom. Some students might even be hostile and actively make life miserable for the new student.

This week we commemorate the Epiphany of the Lord as part of our Christmas celebration. Even though it is quite appropriate for us to pay attention to the Magi and their wondrous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, still they have had a long journey and are weary from their travels. They dress differently from Jewish people. What a strange group to visit the Holy Family in their humble abode. Still, their professed purpose is to pay homage to the recently born king.

In our imagination, we ponder how Jesus, Mary and Joseph welcomed these strangers. The Holy Family’s reactions could be similar to the students who encounter a new student. They might approach warily, just as some students get used to a new member of the class. The family could simply turn them away out of fear or hostility. Obviously, the Holy Family receives these strangers and makes them feel at home during their visit. Mary probably insisted on feeding them. Joseph told them about the town and his profession as a carpenter. Perhaps Jesus even rested in one of the Magi’s laps. There would have been no fear or hostility in the welcome offered by the Holy Family.

If we pay attention to the Holy Family rather than the Magi during this visit, we find that their actions tell us much about welcoming strangers into our midst. It is part of Jesus’ salvific mission to welcome all people into the gifts of redemption. The Magi become representatives of the whole world’s longing for a Savior. In the Jewish context of the time, they are Gentiles and for that very reason they are suspect. Yet, here is a simple Jewish family welcoming them, sharing with them and honoring them.

The Holy Family in this scene provides a lesson for all of us concerning how to welcome the strangers who will inevitably come into our midst. Do we imitate Jesus, Mary and Joseph by making the stranger feel important? Do we reject our natural fears of the alien by learning new things from foreigners? Do we open our arms, rather than make life miserable for the new arrival? As we celebrate Epiphany, are we willing to take on the challenge of Pope Francis, “To change the world, we must be good to those who cannot repay us” (@Pontifex, Oct. 18, 2016).

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.