The Holy Family as Refugees

Outside our church, hanging from the railing of the steps, is a large banner that says “Immigrants and Refugees Welcomed”. In the corner of the banner is an illustration of the Holy Family based on classic paintings of that tableau: Joseph leading a donkey that carries Mary and the Christ child.

It is a banner that is to remind us that the immigrants and refugees of modern society are nothing less than the Holy Family itself that we study and honor at this unique period in our lectionary, and they are all welcomed at our church.

2,000 years ago, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were indeed refugees, no less than the people we see today on the evening news. We cannot forget that just last Wednesday we honored a feast day on our church calendar called The Slaughter of the Innocents, in which we remember and lament over all the newborn children under the age of two that Herod had slaughtered in order to kill the child prophesied to take his place on the throne. We don’t find that event mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, but rather in the 2nd chapter of Matthew.

2,000 years ago, soldiers killed children by the sword. Today they use barrel-bombs.

If you doubt the comparison of the Holy Family to that of modern refugees, then consider the definition of refugees according to the United Nations that says, “A refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her home country because of persecution, war, or violence.” …which is precisely what Mary and Joseph were doing – they were fleeing a death-sentence by an autocratic dictator.

It must have been a terrible, traumatic event for them. They probably were two people who had not traveled any further than a couple of hours walk from their homes. The roads back then were patrolled by roving gangs of bandits that preyed on defenseless travelers regularly. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, about a traveler waylaid on the open road by bandits.

This is the kind of trip Mary and Joseph had to make with their newborn. Most scholars pose that they probably joined a larger caravan heading to Egypt, which fits the narrative of the day. After all, it is 200 miles of rough country from Bethlehem to Egypt, not a journey for a young family of three to make alone. Historically, Egypt was a haven for Jews during the 40 year reign of Herod, for he was an oppressive and violent ruler who brooked no dissent, so many Jews of Jesus’ day made their way to Egypt to seek asylum. An escape to Egypt made complete sense for the Holy Family.

Tradition says that the Holy Family made it as far as Cairo. There is still a church and shrine on the outskirts of Cairo today dedicated to the Holy Family’s supposed residence there. Imagine coming to the Temple for the naming day of your child, like we just read this morning, and just a few days or weeks later, forced to flee your native land in order to save your child’s life. I can barely fathom it.

Yet, the parallels to today’s refugee and immigrant crisis is obvious. People all over the world are in the middle of a great, global migration as they flee persecution, war, and violence. Syria, Sudan, Latin America, the list seems endless sometimes.

We Christians should be able to see the Holy Family in the faces of the dispossessed and suffering. A Quaker friend of mine once said, “If you can’t find God in the face of the very next person you meet, where DO you expect to find God?” We could say today, “If we can’t find the Holy Family in the plight of the refugee, where DO we expect to find the Holy Family?”

We Christians have always seen ourselves as a pilgrim church, for indeed we were described as such by Jesus himself. He says in Luke 9:58 “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He also goes on to teach that no one is above his or her Master.

The message that the apostles and disciples heard over the centuries were obvious to them all: We are all passing through this life, just like Jesus, and it is not our actual home. Our real home is elsewhere, in God’s Kingdom in heaven.

But… in a serious way, we are also all refugees in this world. Yes, we are supposed to be a pilgrim people of a pilgrim church, on an endless journey to heaven. But equally we are refugees, fleeing our homeland for our very lives, fleeing the persecution of conformity to this world and its values, fleeing the war waged against our souls with greed and avarice and dominion, fleeing the violence perpetrated on our very existence because we live, move, and have our being differently than what is expected by modern, secular society. Our lives can be one, long, endless flight to an Egypt we cannot find.

But then… there comes a day in our journey when we find a place of asylum and we finally can come to know and claim our true names, names known by the very angels themselves before we were born, like Jesus; that we find the asylum of Egypt for each and every one of our lives and come to know ourselves, and each other, for the children of God that we are.

On this, the first day of the New Year, I pray that this community, St. John’s, with its welcome banner hung outside our banister, can be your safe harbor, your Egypt, your new homeland, safe from the Herods of life.

I pray that we will always be a place where you have a human name and not a title or classification or an insult; where you will be called by the name given to you by God, like Jesus was given his.

I pray that we all are humble shepherds to one another in this place and in this time, no matter what storm clouds may be gathering on the horizon, ready to carry the word that “Christ is among us” to the rest of our Bethlehem. Amen.

(A sermon given by me on Jan. 1, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church-Tower Grove.)


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