Photo of Hong Kong protests by Ng Han Guan, Associated Press
Mary, Joseph and the baby in their care traverse borders and overlapping political realities in the Biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth. An attentive and honest reading of these main historical sources defies reduction to a single point for political debate.
There’s little to none of that in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ birth. The temptation to use Jesus as a symbol rather than engage him as a reality is a constant, and not just of our current religion and politics. Julia Ward Howe’s Christ-memery for waging the Civil War dropped in the media of her day, the Atlantic Monthly, in 1862,
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Woke/liberal/progressive Christians maintain an Amazon.com-sized inventory of Holy-Family-as-refugees memes; Conservative/traditional Christians tend to sputter, eye roll and not much else in response.
The circumstances of the Holy Family in Bethlehem actually resonate more with conservative political thought; the family’s flight into Egypt offers a progressive point, but the core message of Christmas defies reduction to either one.
I. The birth in Bethlehem
Why conservatives and libertarians aren’t all over the birth in the manger bewilders me. The Holy Family are work-a-day people in what amounts to pre-flight fly-over country. An imperious central government has ordered them to report to an ancestral neighborhood for a census, which of course is a nice way of saying bean counting to justify taxation.
Typical of top-down edicts from our betters in a capitol city, there is no exemption or extension for Mary’s pregnancy. The needs of the ueber-state come first. The Holy Family has more in common with the people of Hong Kong under Beijing than it does with Central Americans at the U.S. border.
Plus there’s an unfunded mandate lurking in the story. The government has compelled all of this travel without provision for adequate lodging. Sure, the Romans are providing security (Don’t worry, we’ll slaughter any unruly sorts) but there aren’t adequate accommodations for the travelers. No SPQR FEMA trailers roll out. That’s Bethlehem’s problem, not Rome’s.
The Bethlehem account in Luke 2 has nothing to do with refugees – if it is read politically it’s more about big government messing with people. The Holy Family deals with it. Jesus is born. God’s plan proceeds.
II. The Flight into Egypt
In Matthew 2:13-16 the Holy Family do become refugees. They flee from their country into Egypt, where they spend a good chunk of Jesus’ infancy.
There’s nothing in the text to suggest that they were hassled by authorities in Egypt. They weren’t detained as far as we can tell; certainly not locked in cages.
But there is the fact that an open or at least porous border served God’s purpose in protecting the Christ child from hostile forces in Jerusalem. And it might be inferred that desert culture’s expectations of hospitality to travelers allowed the Holy Family to live unmolested until the circumstances back home improved. Progressives are right to bring up Biblical points in immigration debates, and here they are not imposing a symbol. God actually speaks about such matters. (In fairness it should be noted that libertarians tend to favor fluid borders although their arguments don’t tend to use Biblical imagery).
III. Beyond the Memes
The Holy Family is not reliant upon any one political system. Its movements are at the service of a divine plan revealed over centuries of prophecy. Luke’s telling of the birth in Bethlehem might look like an accident of Roman appetite for taxes, but Matthew asserts it as the fulfillment of 8th century BC prophecy.
Matthew’s report of the family’s refugee time in Egypt leans on older prophecy as well.
Luke employs this interpretive tool artfully in his third chapter, where the names and titles of great (and even not so great) political figures are listed, only to be eclipsed by some unknown guy at the service of ancient prophecy:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ (3:1-4)
Put simply, the word of God is not symbolism to legitimate political ideology. The word is fulfilled over and often in spite of worldly systems. As one guy sang it, Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned. He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne when He returns.
IV. The Holy Family and Ostracism
Ostracism is a word with political roots: it is the name of a legal political method among the ancient Athenians by which men deemed dangerous to the liberties of the people or embarrassing to the state were banished for 10 years by public vote…
Today it is used as a sociological or psychological term to describe the practice of excluding groups or individuals from some level of community and of their suffering under that treatment.
The core message of Christ’s birth, which is in the Gospel read by many churches on the First Sunday after Christmas, includes the reality that Jesus and those like the Holy Family that embraced him will be ostracized:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)
Things like political ideology and memery ostracize Christ – vote him off the island – until there is a useful political symbol to be had. Then, the Savior is invited back in, but as something less than a Savior. Then when the campaign’s over he’s ostracized again.
The Holy Family weather and crisscross the political landscape, loving and seeking to understand the child that God has planted in their lives. So it is in all times for the church at its best. We love and serve the Christ, even as we don’t fully get Him, and we do so while enduring the noise of great people and systems that fear and would be rid of Him.