By Lucy McDermott, Young Adult Volunteer
“13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[k] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:13-16,20-23)
The Christmas story is a story of forced migration. Jesus lies in a manger in the stable of an inn not because his parents wanted to come to Bethlehem, but because Caesar Augustus required them to come to be registered. Later, in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is told in a dream that King Herod wants to kill Jesus, so the young family flees to Egypt. Even when God tells Joseph that it is safe to return to Israel, Joseph is afraid to go to Judea because of the new king there, so he takes his family to Galilee instead.
Though Matthew and Luke choose to emphasize different elements of the holy family’s story, we can imagine that the first few years of Jesus’s life must have been scary and hectic for them. The Bible stories don’t give us much detail, but I wonder if Mary and Joseph had ever even been to Bethlehem, or if emperor’s decree required them to be registered in a place where they had never been. I wonder if they had expected to be able to return home when they left for Egypt. Did they even expect to reach Egypt safely, or did they worry about Herod’s guards apprehending them on their way? And what was it like for them to hear the angel’s order to return home, while they themselves were not sure it was safe?
In this Christmas season, there are many families – and individuals–like the Holy Family who are migrating. These people have left their homes not because they wanted to, but because they believed that they must leave to survive. Most of the migrants who make the journey to the United States come from countries where their living situations are untenable. Gang violence, disease, flooding and poverty in Haiti; poverty, repressive regimes and crime in the Northern Triangle region; and exorbitant cost of living and human rights violations in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans have found that other Latin American governments do not meet their needs. The effects of climate change have often exacerbated these conditions, making people more vulnerable in their home countries.
A lot of the discourse about immigration has dehumanized people like the Holy Family who come in search of safety. We are often tempted by the rhetoric of “illegal immigrants” or “a crisis at our southern border.” Journalists have described the increase in people seeking aid as a “wave” or a “surge”. Words like these tempt us to ignore the humanity of migrants, to treat them as less-than-human, to view their lives as being less worthwhile than ours. They teach us to turn against Christ’s teaching to love our neighbor.
This rhetoric has consequences. Recently, the Supreme Court issued a stay requiring the federal government to continue to enforce Title 42, a harmful rule that sends many migrants away without the opportunity to seek asylum. President Biden just announced an expansion of Title 42 with limited pathways for legal migration. These pathways will provide welcome relief to some families, but they also create an unequal system where only migrants who can access air travel and sponsorship in the U.S. are able to seek relief. Labels like “illegal immigrant” unfairly demonize people who are unable to access and navigate a complex — and often harmful — immigration system.
Legislation that would give the Secretary of Homeland Security sweeping authority to deny people entry into the United States is entitled the “Border Safety and Security Act.” In fact, this legislation would threaten the safety of those making the journey to the U.S.: migrants expelled to Mexico or their home countries have said that they fear becoming targets of violent crime. But dehumanizing language tries to make us think that they—and not policies that keep them out—are a threat to security.
The story of Christmas is about God becoming human and experiencing the joys and sorrows that we experience. It reminds us that God too has walked the same path that everyone forced to flee their home, whether now or in the past or in the future, walks. As we remember the journey of the Magi, let us also remember the journey that the child they visited made not long after, and all who experience the same struggle today.
If you would like to get involved in migration advocacy and accompaniment, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition publishes newsletter of policy resources, action alerts and updates.