Welcome to the first of the Ness Group Advent Reflections
The journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Luke, chapter 2, verses 1, 3 – 7.
‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’
A reflection for the 1st week of Advent around the idea of displacement.
In the language of today I wonder how we would describe Mary and Joseph as they leave Nazareth for Bethlehem. Travellers or migrants, immigrants or refugees? They were travelling certainly but not for seasonal work, so that rules out ‘migrant’. Nor were they immigrants or refugees seeking a new and permanent life in a foreign country; (the distinction between immigrant and refugee is about how safe it would be to return home). Actually, Joseph and Mary (and many millions like them since) were ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP). They were forced to move by the Roman occupiers of Israel, ostensibly for a census. But was that a ruse to show the Jews what power the Romans could exercise? There have been similar cases of this in our own times; for example, Jews being required to register their presence in Germany, prior to the outbreak of the 2nd World War.
Internal displacement was used against the Rohingya Muslims, forcing them into designated areas in the north of Myanmar before the atrocities became so great that they had to flee across the boundary river to Bangladesh. In this case it has been estimated that over a 1 million have suffered because of state Islamophobia.
Once we start looking for examples of forced movement of nations, communities, families or individuals, then the Bible provides plenty of examples. We might think about the forced deportation of Israelites to Babylon on more than one occasion, or the escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, or of the flight of Elijah who spoke the hard words of God against Ahab and Jezebel. What about Ruth, a Moabite, whose husband’s family had been driven from Bethlehem to Moab by famine? Would they be construed as economic refugees today? When her father-in-law, and then her husband and his brother died, her mother-in-law Naomi insisted she stay in Moab while Naomi returned to Judah. However, she decided to accompany Naomi and offer support, and so they returned to subsistence farming, gleaning what grain they could from the edges of harvested fields.
Today’s migrants also have to exist as best they can; there is little or no aid for them. And if they can find work that others don’t want to do because of the poor conditions, every spare ‘penny’ is transmitted back to their families that have been left behind. The UN calculates that these remittances make up a large part of the income of some countries, so any change in the status of migrants has a significant effect far beyond the host country. In 2018 (the latest statistics), 71 million people fled their homes. That is greater than the whole UK population! And of these, 26 million crossed borders and another 3.5 million sought official refugee status because of violence. But the largest group were IDP, like Mary and Joseph, mostly moving out of areas of conflict. However, it makes them hard-to-reach by relief agencies because of instability in the areas they moved to. And the numbers keep rising. Half of all migrants are children.
Displacement for more than a short period causes upheaval to communities and families. Education becomes erratic or absent as does regular health care. There is little chance to follow-up on common diseases and so tuberculosis is on the rise as are preventable conditions like measles and malnutrition. Things that stable communities might enjoy such as work and leisure can only be dreamt of.
We don’t know how long Mary and Joseph were on their journey; there is nothing biblical about a ‘little donkey’ carrying a heavily pregnant Mary. And since the next major event recorded is the arrival of the travellers from the East (Matthew 2. 1-12), we don’t know how long the new family spent in Bethlehem. As it was Joseph’s hometown it is likely he will have had some relatives there so they could have moved out of unsuitable accommodation. Herod’s fury at the discovery of the birth of a ‘king’, and his edict that all children under 2 years old should be massacred provides a clue that Jesus was no longer an infant. And so, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Joseph took the family on another journey crossing the border into Egypt. They were now truly refugees – but it saved their lives.
Refugees today are often stateless, without papers and living in limbo with their cases shunted between one bureaucratic authority and another. Many live in appalling camps which are over-crowded and insanitary. Few countries want to give them shelter let alone permanent residence even though the 1951 Convention on Human Rights obliged signatories to protect refugees and treat them according to international standards. In 2018 Canada led the way as it continues to do.
As we re-read the story of the displacement of Mary and Joseph, may we will have a more compassionate understanding of the plight of those forced to leave their homes whatever the cause, and reject the ill-informed comment in the media about them.
Creator God, you made us all in your image.
Help us to lay aside our prejudices about people who have had to flee their homes,
and to find ways to welcome them into our communities.
May we honour all people and seek to share your love for humankind
that all may flourish and enjoy the world you have made.