Christmas is the premier season of the year for telling stories, many of them brought to us visually in the age of cinema and television and streaming. We tell and retell the same stories year by year, and look forward to them the way children await a visit from Santa. They are fiction, of course; but like all good fiction, they convey deep and abiding truths. So, for example, Christmas almost would not be Christmas for me if I could not view Alastair Sim’s magnificent portrayal of Scrooge. And I look back with nostalgia to the live television productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors that enriched my childhood viewing.
But it is the true-to-life Christmas stories that I find most compelling; and I found one yesterday in The New York Times in the form of an Op Ed piece entitled “An Immigrant’s Gift on Christmas Eve” by a man with the unlikely name of Tali Farhadian Weinstein.
Three-year-old Tali and his family were Jews living in Iran at the time that the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. His parents realized that their lives were in danger, so his father escaped to Israel first and then to New York City on a tourist visa. Some months later, Tali in the company of his mother and little brother followed. With an Iranian passport and a forged tourist visa, they landed at JFK airport on December 24, 1979 and were promptly detained prior to being deported.
Looking at a young mother with two small boys yearning to be reunited with their father, the I.N.S. officer granted the family “deferred inspection” telling them to return to JFK immediately after New Years for deportation. Tali’s mother called a rabbi who took them immediately to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society where they were represented pro bono for ten years until they were granted asylum. Today Tali is the general counsel of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Allow me to quote the heart of Tali’s story. “I have thought a lot about that night in the years since. As a child, I attributed my freedom in this country to a small miracle – the accident of having arrived on December 24th, a holy day for a vast majority of my new countrymen and women. Maybe that was why the officer exercised the law with mercy and compassion.”
Mercy and compassion, they are what this feast is all about. Our God who might reasonably have enforced the law against us sinners with all severity, instead chose to show mercy and compassion.
That mercy and compassion came into this broken, divided, hurting world as a tiny baby born to a young woman and man far away from home and family and all the comfort new parents long to receive at such a moment. And, while Herod was not at all concerned with immigration policies or their enforcement, he threatened the Holy Family in a far more perilous way than any determine ICE agent. And, just as Mary and Joseph evidently received mercy and compassion from the nameless householder who allowed them the privacy and warmth of his animal shed, so there may very well have been a merciful guard at Egypt’s border and a compassionate family who gave the Holy Family welcome and hospitality until it was safe for them to return to their homeland.
Some stories are powerful and life-altering. The stories we tell at Christmas are such, and they are still altering lives today after two thousand years. The Christmas story moved an I.N.S. official to show mercy long ago to a mother and her sons. That same story changed the life course of a Jewish child now a respected public servant. Now he cannot let Christmas Eve pass without reflecting on compassion and mercy and preaching the Christmas message more eloquently than it will be preached from many a pulpit.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.