As you reflect on the Christmas story do you celebrate and affirm its connection to Africa and refugees?
Each semester in “Introduction to the New Testament” I ask students to corporately retell the Christmas story. Working together students generally note many of the more commonly known elements: the inn and its lack of room, angels, shepherds, wise men and a brilliant star.
Most semesters, however, students neglect the tyrannical attack unleashed on the town of Bethlehem by Herod that would rightly be labeled today as genocide or more accurately – infanticide. This seems to speak to a collective desire in many western cultures to minimize atrocity. This is unsurprising given the response of many to the recent influx of 50,000 Central American unaccompanied minors to the United States who are primarily fleeing a context filled with gangs, drugs, rape and violence. This further corresponds to a general lack of media attention to the more than 1 million Syrian child refugees fleeing from war who even now face the onset of winter. It is perhaps easier and safer to avoid drawing a direct connection between one of the most celebrated biblical narratives to these and other similar realities.
Most semesters students also fail to include the journey to Egypt. Matthew 2:13-15:
3 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Throughout the Old and New Testament the Jewish people looked to Egypt as a place of safety and refuge. Africa has long played an important, though often undervalued, role in the broader history and development of biblical faith.
How long did the “holy family” stay in Egypt? The Bible is unclear but it is safe to assume that the first few years of Jesus’ life were spent in Africa.
Where did they go when they arrived in Egypt? The text is unclear but there was a sizable Jewish immigrant population in Alexandria so perhaps they relocated to northern Egypt.
How did Joseph and Mary feed Jesus and reconstitute their home in a new country? Again, the text is unclear but two assumptions are probable. First, there were surely individuals who helped them along the way and so entertained unaware the Son of God. Second, it is possible that Joseph and Mary used the gifts from the Magi to help them in this difficult process.
What is clear is that the holy family had to flee for their lives from a deranged governmental system and they found safety and security in the arms of Africa.
It is not possible to know the kinds of interactions, if any, Jesus had with people around him while an infant in Egypt. But it is reasonable to assume that Alexandria was filled with business interactions and cultural exchanges between the immigrant Jewish population, local Egyptians, people from the broader Roman world and Sub-Saharan Africans navigating the Nile, the life blood of the region. Certainly this impacted the development of Joseph and Mary who may have later recounted to Jesus how they were saved and lived at that time. We cannot know the influence of Africa on Joseph, Mary and Jesus but it is reasonable to assume that it significantly impacted this family.
Moreover, part of the reason why this text is compelling is because it so clearly states that Jesus was at one point a refugee. At Christmas we celebrate many titles for Jesus – Messiah, Immanuel, Christ, Prince of Peace, Son of God – and these are all powerful and true names. But Jesus is also the refugee, the one forced to flee his home, the politically betrayed and abandoned one, scared and fleeing in the night, nervous at the border, wondering how life will go on. Jesus, Joseph and Mary were all refugees.
We do not often celebrate Jesus the refugee. What would it mean this Christmas for churches to affirm that Jesus was a refugee protected by Africa?
Reflecting on this passage the Africa Bible Commentary notes:
The fact that Jesus was a refugee on African soil should teach us many lessons. God was not ashamed to let his son become a refugee. By sharing the plight of stateless refugees, Jesus honoured all those who suffer homelessness on account of war, famine, persecution or some other disaster. There are millions of refugees on the African continent and many of them have a terrible life… The sad thing is that far too many Christians are either unconcerned or believe the lie that every refugee is a troublemaker. Yet the Bible is full of men and women who knew what it meant to be refugee.
Jesus as refugee is good news to many this Christmas season. We can turn to those experiencing true difficulty and say, “God has not abandoned you.” Jesus is one who understands as one without home, without wealth, at one point even without a country. The Gospel is good news to the broken and the suffering in this world.
Jesus as refugee is also a challenge to Christians this Christmas season. If Jesus was a refugee today would the church welcome him or miss him altogether? If was Jesus was a refugee, might we find the Spirit of God still at work in refugees today? If Jesus was a refugee, might we also have a responsibility to help others who find themselves in such a situation?
If the church is unwilling to help refugees then who will? If the church is unwilling to step into this difficult kind of situation and offer the love of Jesus then where is the hope of the Christmas season? The church must be willing to step into the most difficult, most broken, most challenging spaces because the light of Jesus shines brightest in the darkest of contexts. We must train and mobilize our churches to be politically and consciously aware of this biblical mandate.
According to recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are approximately 43.3 million refugees worldwide today. Jesus was a refugee.
41% of the refugees are children. Jesus was a refugee child.
26% of all refugees are in Africa. Jesus was a refugee in Africa.
There are also likely refugees in your community some who may be recently resettled. Would you consider searching out a resettlement agency in your area and partnering with them this Christmas season?
Each Christmas we worship, though we may not always state it clearly, the refugee Jesus. This season let us acknowledge and affirm the special connection shared between Jesus and our brothers and sisters from Africa. This season let us also pray, minister and befriend those with whom Jesus specifically identified: refugees.