Gifts from Foreigners
The gospel reading for Epiphany, celebrated by Christians on January 6th of each year, tells the story of the wise men visiting the infant Jesus. Wise men is a convenient euphemism; these magi who traveled without passports were actually foreign astrologers. For a contemporary analogue, imagine a handful of illegal immigrants from Central or South America who establish a palmistry or tarot business in New York or Washington. Although imperfect, like any analogy, that image may help us to move beyond romantic idealizations that distort the gospel’s power and message.
Tradition asserts that the wise men brought three gifts: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Illegal immigrants from Central and South America bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as well. The gold – a gift for the newborn king, Jesus – these immigrants bring is their willingness to work long hours at low paying, labor-intensive, tedious jobs most U.S. citizens disdain. This labor translates into a gift of affordable yet substantial improvements in the quality of life for many U.S citizens.
The myrrh – a spice used for embalming recognizes Jesus’ humanity – that many of these immigrants bring is their example of sacrificing self for family. Men, women, and children come to the States and work for minimal wages, then send substantial sums home to support the family left behind. The immigrant ekes out an existence on the remainder, often unable to visit the family whom they support for years at a time. In our culture of rugged, self-reliant individualism, the gift of that example vividly incarnates true family values.
The frankincense – incense burned at a god's altar emphasized Jesus’ identity as God's son – that these immigrants give to this nation is affirmation. The continuing stream of illegal immigrants who risk limb and life to come to the States affirms that the dream and promise of this nation built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not dead.
If immigrants symbolize the wise men, then by implication the U.S. symbolizes the Christ child. And that is the analogy’s fatal flaw. The United States is a great and often good nation. But the United States is not the new Israel, the nation of God's own choosing to bring salvation to the world. A dangerous idolatry of self-serving nationalism too often permeates U.S. Christianity.
In fact, the entire analogy builds upon an even more fundamental error. Most of the illegal immigrants who come north to the United States are only foreigners if you and I take our primary identity from being U.S. citizens. In Holy Baptism, we died and we were reborn as citizens of God's kingdom. That citizenship, not nationality, should define our identity.
Most of the illegal immigrants from Central and South America have also received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Thus, they are not foreigners. They are family. Like us, they are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which means that they are our brothers and sisters.
Illegal immigration raises a web of complex problems that lack simple answers. Christianity does offer some guidance for our nation, our Churches, and each of us. Even as Joseph used Egypt’s prosperity to feed many in time of famine, so the U.S. should use its unparalleled prosperity to help others raise their standard of living. Christian Scripture and tradition teach the Church to care for the poor and sick, especially for members of Christ's body. The Christian vocation is to practice hospitality towards strangers, not to build fences to keep the stranger at a safe distance.
This Epiphany, give gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense to some of the least amongst us, the many illegal immigrants in our city. Gold represents the necessities of life; myrrh signifies recognizing the humanity, dignity, and worth of each immigrant; frankincense reminds us that by giving these gifts we may unknowingly entertain angels or even minister to the Christ himself.