Dennis Moon’s hymn “For Mary, Joseph, ‘Twas No Place,” provided me a theme for this article.
“For Mary, Joseph, ’twas the place / to sit and sup at tables’ grace. / A longing sojourn bade them rest. / No inn, but stable called them guest.
“’Tis heaven’s holy refugee / who for us all died on a tree, / and by his death gave us a place / to sit and sup at tables’ grace” (The Covenant Hymnal, #168).
We are protected against the “refugee Jesus” by the conventional Christmas portrayals of the manger scene and the shepherds and Magi at worship. Even the stable looks sterile compared with the barn, cows, and calves I grew up with, milked, fed, and cleaned up after on a Nebraska farm.
It is the aftermath of Bethlehem that riled Herod and sent him on his rampage to seek out and kill his supposed rival king. So Matthew’s Christmas account continues with the story of the slaughter of the children, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus seeking safety in Egypt. And, thus, the Holy Family is a refugee family, and the one we call Lord and Savior is a refugee.
Irony of ironies: the nation that once had enslaved their ancestors is now their redeemer. The mystery of God’s saving ways!
Anyone listening to the news programs or reading various publications knows about the refugee crisis in our world today. It occurs in areas of military action, where life is disrupted and people are dislocated, wounded, killed—words run out. The crisis occurs in nations attempting to host refugee families whether in tent cities or in conventional locations. And then other nations debate whether they should participate in the hosting and hospitality enterprise or not.
Does it matter to us who are Christians that Jesus was a refugee? That he began his life that way?
Does it matter to us who are Christians that Jesus was a refugee? That he began his life that way? That his full identity was hidden? Jesus’s first act of ministry was not to speak, except to cry as infants do. It was not to perform any deed with his hands as adults would. His first act was to receive care, to bless the Egyptian host family who gave him and his parents food, water, shelter, and maybe more permanent housing.
Jesus blessed them by receiving, and that’s all. Presence is the incarnation’s basic instrument for guest and host.
The refugee issue concerns not only what people who have earthly goods and spiritual gifts can do, but also what a well-provisioned nation can do. The other side is: what gift does a refugee bring? The refugee brings the manifestation of the image and likeness of God, since each human, according to Scripture, is created in the divine image. By their presence they bless us and invite us to do the will of God. And so our service, by welcoming the refugee, is to the Creator in the created.
Just as the Gospel of Matthew begins with the story of the Holy Family seeking refuge in another country, its final chapters return to the issue of how nations and people welcome or do not welcome the strangers in their midst. Jesus, who began his life as a refugee, says to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another….And the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me….Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (25:31-32, 34-35, 40).