They’d come a long way, the young couple and their young son. It hadn’t been ideal, travelling with such a young child, but they had to flee their homeland, having heard of a threat to their child’s life. They’d travelled as best they could, hoping on arrival in a safe country they could rest secure amongst others of their own nationality who they knew also lived there, and would help them learn the language, and find work. The husband was a carpenter, and thought it should be easy enough to follow his trade. They had no wish to be dependent on anyone. But on arrival, they had a shock: they were sent to a huge centre, where few people spoke their language, and no-one appeared willing to help. They were others there, but from all nationalities, and they didn’t really know who they could trust. They were told they should have applied to come, yet they didn’t know how – and, in any case, they’d had to run to save their child’s life. Even in the centre, there were rumours of the massacre that had happened back at their home, in which they would have been consumed had they stayed any longer. They were still concerned for their son; he had no real stability in his life, and they really wanted to find a proper home that he could settle down in and make friends; they wanted him to grow up in their own religion, but there was little provision for it here, whereas they knew there was if they could be allowed to live among their compatriots. One such person had come to call on them, bringing a lawyer, who could help their case – but who knew how long that would be? The mother was finding life difficult, trying to keep her son happy and entertained, with little support from other young parents that there would have been in a different context; there were other families here, but mostly they were single people, and not all were sympathetic to the needs of a toddler. One young man must have had younger brothers and sisters back on his homeland, for he had made a pal of the younger boy, and could spend hours entertaining him, for which his parents were grateful; but also slightly worried. They trusted this young man, but they’d never met him before and had no idea as to his past – or his present contacts. They didn’t know who they could trust. They weren’t allowed to work, and even if they were allowed out of this centre to settle, they might not be allowed to work until the paperwork was correct. But how could they sort that out, when they didn’t speak the language? Would the lawyer continue to help them, or would they need to pay fees at some time? Fees they couldn’t afford, if they weren’t allowed to work. At the moment, they were dependent on the government to provide for them; but they weren’t happy with this. They hadn’t looked to be dependant: they had just wanted somewhere safe to live, where they could work and earn their living, until the time came for them to go back home. They were quite prepared to do what they could to support the country who had welcomed them; but they felt more like prisoners, and couldn’t work out what they had done wrong. But they had no choice: it was run, or die. Unfortunately, although they knew this was a fact, they couldn’t prove it. Well, of course, they had no papers to prove it! This was a massacre of young children they had escaped from! They had been warned in a dream, and they had been right; their son would have died if they’d stayed. But there was nothing to prove the massacre, let alone that their son had been the target, and the government of their homeland had effectively covered up the rumours … No, they couldn’t prove it. They just knew that their son would die if they were sent back; and especially if they were sent back officially. In vain, the father pleaded that he could work, that he had no wish to depend on anyone, they only wanted to stay until the official responsible had gone. In vain the mother pleaded for somewhere more congenial for her son to grow up. It was starting to affect his behaviour, but, no. It wasn’t the situation; it was her failings as a mother. How could it not be the situation, and the stress his parents were undergoing? How could the authorities not see that this would affect everything? That it was not safe for the child? That, if they had only been allowed to seek work, then the government would have less to pay out, and they could contribute to their new homeland? Desperate for some sense of normality, desperate for some sense of ending, the parents began to wonder if they had done the right thing. But, no – their son would have died if they had stayed. But rather than living in safety amongst others of their own community, it really felt that they had saved their child from certain death at the expense of his actual ability to live; and they had been told that even if they were allowed to settle somewhere, it might not get better. Yes, they had compatriots here, who would willingly find a home for them and help them work; but there was also great suspicion about those fleeing to this country, and they wouldn’t find it easy to get work. It might be necessary to find a down-at-heel job, that no-one else would do. Moreover, their son would almost certainly find he was taunted and bullied due to his race and his accent. How could this be, in a country which was so civilised? Mary and Joseph were people full of faith in their God, and he had brought them this far; but now they really had to cling on to hope that they would find their way through this, and back to home, if any of the prophecies of Jesus’ birth were to come true. Especially if they were deported, in which case they may well find Herod’s guards waiting for them on the boarders, and God’s plan of salvation would come to a messy, but certain, end.
This wasn’t how it actually was for Mary and Joseph on arrival in Egypt; it seems there was a community of Jews there, although they spoke Greek, so I’m not sure if language would have been an issue. But it may be likely that the family would have been taken under the wing of fellow Jews, who would have helped them settle and helped Joseph find work; that Mary would have been involved in the lives of other young families, and felt supported; that, moreover, they would have been safe, until the time came for them to return. I am not an expert either in refugee experiences, or life in an immigration removal centre, beyond a brief search on the internet. This is merely my imagining of what it might have been like, had Mary and Joseph’s experience been set in a 21st century backdrop.
The point is not so much what happened all those years ago, but how we respond now. Do we see all those around us as people for whom God became incarnate? Jesus was born into a human family, into a specific situation, far removed from our own. But the incarnation happened for all those we meet and hear of, both those we admire and those we look down upon; those whom our culture admires and those it despises; those whom we see as ‘like us’ and those whom we see as ‘different’ or even ‘dangerous’; indeed, those who may actually be different or dangerous. We know the Christmas story so well, and its’ telling is so often mixed up between the two gospels which mention Jesus’ birth, that we can miss the point; we can sanitise it, missing its’ radical nature, and seeing it as a sweet story for children. Well, yes, it IS a story for children, but it is also a story for adults, and one we could ponder beyond the familiar words and the familiar carols. That Jesus was born for those who live sanitised lives, but he also came for those who live messy ones. So let us this Christmas celebrate the God who enters into the heart of ourselves, both sanitised and messy; the heart of our Church, in its’ cleanness and chaotic-ness; and the heart of our both wholesome and disordered world; and may that celebration help us to see God in the messiness, not just of our own lives, but the lives of all others.
May Christmas bring you blessings in your messiness and may the new year be the start of a deeper journey with God.