I was on Facebook in the wee small hours last night and ran across a meme that once again, has me baffled and frustrated over the power of the "culture wars" in our country, as well as worried about the lack of depth in our understanding of the gospel. This was a type of meme that has been circulating for several weeks. A usual version has a picture of the nativity and something that relates the fact that the holy family were refugees.
What gets me every time is not the message of the meme itself (though in meme fashion, it is sometimes presented in less than gracious terms...the one I saw last night was lashing out at some of the responses to earlier, more gracious versions, and basically saying if you didn't believe Jesus and his family were refugees, you shouldn't celebrate Christmas). What gets me is the Pharisaical reaction to the meme, in which commenters, many of whom clearly would identify themselves as Christians, are a) stating absolutely that Jesus and his family were NOT refugees, b) that even if they were, they were a different kind of refugee than those living in our world today, and c) that anybody who posts this is clearly a liberal who doesn't read or understand the Bible and thus deserves censure and mocking. The overall message in the comments, the ones I can stomach when I'm feeling nauseated at 4 a.m., seem to encapsulate that "this is not what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." In so doing, they seem to be capturing the idea that Christmas is about Jesus' birth, divorcing that instance of the birth somehow from the overall deep theological truth of the incarnation, Jesus taking on flesh and becoming human.
The distinction that critics of this meme like to make is that Jesus and his family were not refugees on the night that Jesus was born. They point out that Mary and Joseph had not gone to Bethlehem as refugees. They had gone to be registered in a census. True enough. Let's look at Luke 2:1-5...
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
So Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be registered in a census which was decreed by Caesar Augustus. This was the Roman Emperor who pretty much believed he controlled the whole world, and who in some sense, at that time, did control a lot of it. He was the head of a mighty Roman empire whose reach was incredibly long and powerful, so long and powerful that they had eaten up a lot of other people's lands and put themselves in charge everywhere they could. The Israel in which Mary and Joseph lived was an oppressed place. All you have to do is to look at other parts of the gospels, perhaps especially some of the narratives regarding Jesus' crucifixion, to gain a fuller understanding of just how oppressed the Jews were under the Romans.
Mary and Joseph didn't exactly flee to Bethlehem as refugees, no, but they walked about 90 miles as a young, impoverished couple, one of whom was pregnant (and whom we can easily and truthfully identify with unwed teenagers) to do the bidding of an emperor who had oppressed their people. Their registration in such a census was probably related to the fact that once you were enrolled, you could be taxed (which is why some translations read that way). If we're looking for ways to relate to the people in this gospel narrative, and to understand who they were: poor, tired, oppressed, stressed, and taxed could be some appropriate adjectives.
The difficulty of their circumstances continues as we read on in Luke's narrative. I'm not stopping to get into the scholarly debate here about whether or not they really stayed in a stable (no sentimental 19th century barn, for sure) or a cave or a relative's house that had an open area with an animal feeding trough in it. It's probably enough for us to know that there is no room for them at the inn where they originally stop, and so they have to make do with whatever they can find. And that the only bed they can lay their newborn swaddled son in, happens to be a manger where animals feed. I think we can add unwelcomed and exhausted to the adjectives without having to stretch too far imaginatively.
Are we beginning to get a picture here? Jesus came to be born to identify with all humanity, to take on human flesh and to experience the difficulties and challenges of living in a broken world he had come to heal. He willingly entered into that brokenness. Although Jesus was part of the Godhead and the true ruler of the world, God didn't choose to send him as a human baby into a wealthy and influential family. He was NOT born the son of Caesar Augustus or even Herod the Great, the Jewish regional leader who was an arrogant, violent man and essentially a puppet of the oppressive Romans. God sent him to be part of a family that was poor and oppressed, but who loved God with all their hearts and were astounded to be part of his unfolding story. Thankfully, any of us who have ever felt poor and oppressed or actually been so in any way, can be amazed that the Creator would send his only Son to live in this way and to identify with our pain.
But (I can hear people who are scared or scornful of refugees argue) they weren't refugees. Well, no, I guess not technically, not on the night he was born. They became refugees, of course, when Herod, freaked out that there was word that Jesus was born to be "king of the Jews" (a word he got from foreigners who had read the sky and Jewish prophecies and come to this incredible recognition) might grow up to become a political threat. According to Matthew, he ordered the death of every child, aged two and under, in the region where Jesus was born. Apparently it had been a while since Jesus was born when the wise men from the East showed up, and they were not entirely sure of the date of his birth...Herod in a sweeping rage and a fit of panic just decided to kill a lot of children to be sure he had wiped out his political threat. Blessedly, God warned Joseph in a dream what was about to happen. The angel tells him to take Mary and Jesus and to "flee to Egypt," which is what, of course, he does -- Joseph gets a lot of angelic messages from God, and he is always obedient and faithful to follow the instructions. So Joseph, Mary, and a very young child Jesus go on the run to an ancient land where their ancestors once spent 400 years in slavery, to get away from a violent king who desires Jesus' death and who clearly has no compunction about killing children.
Are they refugees? Yes. And could today's refugees relate to their situation? I think so. Many of the refugees we see today, some of whom are fleeing areas not too far from where Jesus and his family grew up and lived, are fleeing poverty and violence and are in real fear for their lives. Like the holy family, they are looking for shelter and compassionate welcome.
But (the critics interrupt again) some of the so called refugees who want to get into our country are actually people who want to hurt us! And (they also add) the Holy Family weren't refugees on Christmas! That came later in the story! (Truly...these are the kinds of arguments I have read.)
I'd like to tackle those issues in reverse order. First of all, Jesus' birth, important and beautiful as it is to read about, is not about one night, reverently silent or otherwise. It is about Jesus, the eternal Son of God, whom John calls the "Word" and about him doing this:
The Word became flesh and blood,(John 1:14, in the Message paraphrase...traditional translations say he came to "dwell among us.")
and moved into the neighborhood.
This is the point. He came to live among us and to BE one of us. He came to be human and to relate to our hardest, most difficult experiences as humans (as well as our joys). And he came because, in John's words again, from chapter 3: "God so loved the world." The whole world. The entire world. Me and you. People like us and people not like us. People we love and people we find it hard to love. People who need hope and help and shelter, but also people we think of as our enemies. He came to love the lost and the poor and the broken. He came to love the Pharisees who were so confused by their clinging ways to traditional religion that they couldn't easily comprehend the radical light that had come into the world. He also came to love the prostitutes and the tax collectors, those collaborators who actually joined hands with the oppressive Romans (probably out of fear and greed) to collect taxes from their Jewish neighbors, often taking more than was needed so they could get their own corrupt cut of the money. Matthew was a tax collector before becoming a disciple whom Jesus called! Zaccheus was one too, before Jesus got hold of his life by calling him down from his precarious perch in a tree!
We cannot sentimentalize and compartmentalize Jesus's birth away from this ultimate truth of the incarnation. We can't say that Jesus doesn't love and care for refugees because he didn't happen to technically be one on the night of his birth. The entire incarnation matters. Jesus taking on flesh began with his conception and moved on through his entire life, including his death on the cross when he was executed at the hands of fearful Jewish leaders and corrupt Roman rulers (the Sanhedrin wanted him dead but didn't have the political power to put him on a cross; the Romans were only too happy to do away with any political threats by bringing out one of their favorite means of execution). Jesus' incarnation also included his amazing resurrection three days after his death. These things were all part of his life, and it is his whole life that we can look at, cling to, learn from, enter into, be saved by and be grateful for, not just one piece of it that happens to agree with our picture of what it looks like for God to love us.
Most of the refugees begging for asylum in our world today are not looking to create trouble or to inflict pain. While it's true that sometimes unbalanced and violent people do cross borders to create trouble (the kind of sin we see in the biblical Herod is still alive and well in sinners today) it is not the norm. Most of what we see in the refugee community are people fleeing poverty, violence, and injustice, the kinds of things that Jesus and his family lived under, the kind of violence and injustice that sent the child Jesus fleeing into Egypt and that put him on a cross. So it's not a misreading of the Scriptures for people to say that Jesus and his family should compel us to be compassionate to refugees, even if putting such a sentiment in a meme with a Christmas card picture of the nativity makes that harder for some to understand. And mocking such people for their lack of biblical understanding is wrong as well as mean-spirited.
Welcoming strangers is hard for all of us because we live with our own sin and fear, just as refugees do. In the affluent west, our fears may look a little different than our brothers and sisters who are fleeing persecution or oppressive governments. We fear people who don't look like us or don't speak our language. We fear people who might come in with violent intentions and try to hurt us and hurt our country. We fear what we don't understand, and in our sinfulness, we refuse to get close enough to learn who others really are at heart.
But we serve an amazing God who came to identify with all of us, to be one of us because he loves each and every one of us. It's mind-boggling, but that means that God even loved Herod, crazy and hard as that seems. We know for a fact that he loved Saul, a man who terrorized the early church by persecuting and putting Christians to death. He loved him enough to appear to him, give him spiritual sight, turn his world upside down, and call him to follow him. Saul, whose name changed to Paul (showing his brand new identity) became a missionary and one of the main writers of the New Testament.
The story of Jesus' birth is beautiful and true, but it is a radical story that encapsulates not just what happened on one starry night when the angels cried their glorias to a field of shepherds (hmm....an interesting place to make a royal birth announcement!) but the entire amazing news that God had become man. He took on human flesh not only to love us and identify with us during the years he lived, but so he could one day sacrifice that flesh and redeem us from the bondage of sin and death. His whole story, including his eternal life before he became human, is part of who he is from the very start. Saying he technically wasn't a refugee on the night he was born is not really a point worth making. First of all, because he would soon become one, and that is as much a part of his life as the night of his nativity and his ultimate death on the cross. And secondly, or perhaps I should have said this first, in a way that we can almost see as refugee-like, Jesus had already made the most incredible sojourn from one home to another ever, as we read in Philippians (written by Paul!) chapter 2, verses 6-8:
"though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
In another astounding passage, 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul tells us:
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."
This is the Lord we follow, a Lord who humbled and emptied himself to this degree, who left the best home anyone could ever have (a home we will, by grace, one day know too) to come live in a world that was broken and poor and bent, a world that would misunderstand him, mock him, threaten him, and eventually kill him. A world filled with violent, rich, and oppressive rulers; stuffy, arrogant religious leaders; impoverished, oppressed families; refugees who cannot find welcomes, and so many more kinds of people we could name. He came for us all. He loves us all. He desires each one of us to repent and to walk in relationship with him. He longs for us to know him in his humanity and divinity, and he longs for us to love the humanity of our neighbors, no matter who they are, because each one is made in his image. He wants us to reach out to them with the kind of love we have come to know in him.