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Each Christmas, We Celebrate Jesus the Refugee

As you reflect on the Christmas story, do you celebrate and affirm its connection to Africa and refugees?

Each semester in my “Introduction to the New Testament” course, I ask students to 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 U.S., 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 in Matthew 2:13-15. 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? 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 and so entertained unaware the Son of God.

Second, Joseph and Mary may have 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.

It is reasonable to assume that Alexandria was filled with many business interactions and cultural exchanges.

While we cannot know the influence of Africa on Joseph, Mary and Jesus, we can reasonably assume that it significantly impacted them.

Moreover, this text is compelling 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 – but Jesus is also the refugee.

Jesus, Joseph and Mary were all refugees, but we rarely celebrate this. What would it mean 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 honored all those who suffer homelessness on account of war, famine, persecution or some other disaster.”

The commentary continues: “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 refugees.”

Jesus as refugee brings the good news to many this Christmas season: “God has not abandoned you.”

Jesus understands those lacking a home, wealth, even 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. If Jesus were a refugee today, would the church welcome him or miss him altogether?

Might we find the spirit of God still at work in refugees? Might we also have a responsibility to help others who find themselves in similar situations?

If the church is unwilling to offer the love of Jesus to refugees, then where is the hope of the Christmas season?

The church must be willing to step into the most difficult, broken, 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. Of those, 41 percent are children, and 26 percent of all refugees are in Africa.

There are likely refugees in your community. 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.

Let us acknowledge and affirm the special connection shared between Jesus and our brothers and sisters from Africa.

Let us also pray, minister and befriend those with whom Jesus specifically identified: refugees.

Elijah Brown is the director of the Freedom Center and associate professor of missions at East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) in Marshall, Texas, where he also serves as a faculty in residence. A longer version of this article first appeared on The Intersection, the blog of ETBU’s Center for Christian Scholarship. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ElijahMBrown and the Center @ETBUCECS.