An image of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child has been making the rounds on social media. The nativity scene in question sits outside of Claremont United Methodist Church in California. Without words, the photo instantly calls out in sharp reality the suffering of families at the US southern border who are currently being detained under similar conditions.
Like many, I shared the image and instantly comments started pouring in. At first, it was just people sharing their own feelings of shock and shame about what is happening in our country. Outrage at the thought that we’ve really continued to allow children to be separated from their parents and that human beings are being locked away in cages like animals.
But soon people started flooding the comment sections with justifications of the inhumane treatment and also claims that Jesus and his parents were nothing like the refugees we see today!
In short the answer is: yes, according to the scriptures they really, really were refugees.
Most people arguing against the refugee-Jesus plot line are relying mostly on the Gospel of Luke. This is the gospel that most people grew up hearing in church during candlelight services. It’s the one that Linus famously quotes at the end of Charle Brown’s Christmas. So it brings to mind images of Joseph and Mary voluntarily leaving their home to be counted in the census. But that’s just one part of the nativity story.
Based on the passages in Luke, many will argue that the Holy Family are simply law abiding citizens complying with the demands of the legitimate governing authority. They return to the place of origin of Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, for the census. Once they reach the city of David, they are met with nowhere to stay since all of the AirBnb’s are full because of an influx due to the census. It’s certainly inconvenient, but that’s hardly the same thing as being a refugee!
Once they find themselves in a little manger, suddenly angels are heard on high, shepherds make their way from the fields to worship the newborn king, and three wise men arrive having seen the star in the sky. And a perfect nativity scene is created.
There is just one minor problem with this depiction. Every nativity scene you’ve ever seen is a lie.
So in order to truly understand the truth of the refugee status of the Holy Family you’ll need to unlearn all you thought you knew about the birth of Jesus.
The wise men weren’t at the birth of Jesus. As a matter of fact, the wise men are entirely excluded from the Gospel of Luke. You think of them there because your whole life you saw them located next to everyone in the nativity scenes. But only the Matthew gospel references the the Magi from the East coming to visit the Christ Child. Both stories reference the birth of Jesus, however, Luke focuses on the shepherds and the visitation of the angels and Matthew seems to skip forward quickly from the birth of Christ to some time later when the Magi come to visit. Because most people didn’t grow up hearing the actual story of the Magi at Christmas they don’t realize that 100% of that story is linked to the political nature of Jesus’ birth or his stepfather’s need to evacuate his family from the region.
Most biblical scholars agree that the Magi did not arrive at the time of Jesus’ birth but likely a year or two after. But to make the telling of the story easier for most people, they are condensed as if all of the events happened one starry night. They didn’t. A great deal of time separates the events of the birth of Jesus with the shepherds and the angels present and the Magi arriving to adorn him with gifts at his parent’s home, far away from the smelly stable. Yet, they all comprise the legitimate nativity story.
Even though the Magi are commonly depicted as three men arriving among the farm animals along with the angels and shepherds, in reality, it was likely a large group of magicians and astrologers who traveled in groups of forty or more. The reason that they have been condensed is because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Three gifts became three men as a way to more easily depict them in iconography and statues.
This traveling group of sky watchers noticed the star that predicted the arrival of the Messiah, just probably not before the events of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but more likely after. As they followed the skies it led them to Judea. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men made one fateful error in asking Herod, who was the Roman King of Judea, where the King of the Jews was born. The Romans were occupying Jewish land and were in constant fear of uprisings. Each Roman King was required to keep their area free of rebellions less they enraged Cesar.
In the Christian narrative, Herod is afraid that this child king will cause his worst fear to come true, a rebellion in his region. Or worse, grow to be the legitimate king to the region who will overthrow him or even the Cesar.
Herod begs of the Magi to come back and tell him once they find the location of the boy. But both the Magi and Joseph are warned by way of angelic dreams of Herod’s intentions to destroy the child. The Magi decide not to return to Herod at all and Joseph is expressly told to take the child and flee to Egypt. King Herod is searching for the newborn king and will destroy him once he does. All male children of a certain age are to be captured and killed. Like good parents, Mary and Joseph risk everything to protect their precious child.
The first few years of the life of Jesus are comprised of his family living in exile as both political and religious refugees. They fled a hostile dictatorship, of an occupied homeland, in order to survive. This sounds very similar to the story of many families who are coming to the US-Mexico border seeking refuge. They are watching in fear as their communities are being torn apart, and like Jospeh and Mary, want their children to be safe. So they run.
There are many historical discrepancies in the Matthew narrative. Whether or not Herod ordered a Slaughter of the Innocent is highly disputed, along with many other details.
However, if we take the Gospel of Matthew at its face value and had Egypt employed a similar policy as America currently has, the gospels may have been cut abruptly short. The whole birth and death of Jesus could have been within the first three years of his life.
Recently, news broke of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant, was seriously ill and left to die alone and afraid. His story joins a sickeningly long list of children who have died in US custody.
This holiday season, we are forced fo imagine what life would have been like had the Holy Family not been welcomed in. Would Herod have succeeded in his capture of Jesus? Or had Jesus been faced with similar policies in Egypt as exist in the US, instead of Christians wearing crosses around their necks, the symbol might have been a cage.
Nathan Monk’s new book, Charity Means Love, addresses many of our cultural blind spots in how we give. Order your copy today!