It’s a part of the story we often overlook. But it’s right there, every year. We certainly do enjoy the parts of the story that feature angels and shepherds and magi and a bright star. Those parts of the story are so positive and uplifting; warm and comforting. But there is one part of the story we tend to ignore, because it’s kind of a downer. That’s the part of the story that says that Jesus was born a refugee, whose parents had to flee their homeland to avoid persecution. Jesus was a refugee.
That’s the story Matthew tells. After news of Jesus’ birth traveled to king Herod, the Roman client king issued a decree for all boys under 2 years old in Bethlehem to be killed. He would eliminate the symbolic threat to his power, that so-called “king of the Jews,” even if it required wholesale slaughter.
Warned of this by an angel in a dream, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and heads to Egypt. Joseph, Mary, and infant Jesus crossed the border. Fortunately there wasn’t a wall there. They left their homeland, embracing risk to escape danger. According to Matthew, they may have stayed in Egypt for a few years. Possibly, the young, poor, migrant Jewish family found some help, some hospitality, some hope in that foreign land.
But maybe not. Interestingly, according to the tradition of ancient Coptic Christianity in Egypt, it is said that the Holy Family was constantly on the move while in Egypt as authorities and ordinary people sought to do them harm. As foreign refugees they may not have been welcomed. It appears that Jesus and his family experienced what refugees often experience and have experienced throughout history. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, as the Christmas story tells us, was a stranger, a migrant, a refugee at the start of his life; vulnerable, yet hopeful. Dependent on the hospitality of others.
Yes, Jesus the refugee is not a typical Christmas theme. But as events of recent years have made the plight of refugees worldwide and in our own country more widely known, it seems pertinent to tell this part of Jesus’ story. Indeed, the plight of refugee children makes the story of the Christ Child even more poignant. The estimated number of displaced peoples, of refugees, today is more than 65 million. More than half of those are children. In a world of borders, millions of people are forced to traverse those borders due to war, despotic regimes, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, domestic violence, gang warfare, drug cartels, famine and, not insignificant, a changing climate.
So, this Christmas Eve we’ve put a small spotlight on their plight. We’ve thought of children who have no place to lay their heads even as we sang about Jesus, “away in a manger, no crib for a bed.” We’ve asked, “What child is this?” He is the one “wrapped in the chill of midwinter, comes now among us; born into poverty’s embrace.” “Who is this, who lives with the lowly?” “This is Christ revealed to the world in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.”
This is the one of whom we sang,
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
The very essence of Jesus birth is that God finds a way to identify with those most in need, those most vulnerable, those most in dire straits. He chose to be born amongst and live with the least of us, the poor, the refugee child with no home, no bed, to call his/her own. Indeed, as we heard the choir sing:
Where are his courtiers, and who are his people?
Why does he bear neither scepter nor crown?
Shepherds his courtiers, the poor for his people,
With peace as his scepter and love for his crown.
As we celebrate all that is Christmas – the music, the lights, the look of delight on a child’s face, the laughter of family gatherings and, of course, lots of good food – may we also remember Jesus the refugee child. In a world filled with despair, anger, violence, and just plain wrong, may we experience the hope, peace, joy and love (as our advent candles remind us) that is the message of this season. But let us not do so by ignoring those with whom Jesus came to live. My prayer for all of us is:
May a new compassion and mercy and generosity be birthed in us.
May we have empathy for those refugees who arrive unexpectedly.
May our hearts be broken, if necessary, and altered by the needs around us.
May we find ourselves surprised by something beautiful within us.
And then we’ll really have something to sing about this Christmas. Amen.