“The amounts needed to rescue people are less than what is needed to rescue banks.”High Commissioner António Gutteres for the UN Refugee Agency said last summer. There are an estimated 16 million refugees in our world today. That’s about 5 times the population of CT. That is 16 million people - families, children who have fled their country of origin to escape danger or persecution there. Why does that matter? Because on this day, we remember that Jesus was made a refugee by King Herod. We know the first part of the story…
Wise men from the East come looking for the child who was to be born. These Wise men, magi, are gentiles and they have come to pay homage to the newborn king. Can you imagine Herod's surprise? His fear and anger over one who could supplant his role as king? He wants to know about this child and he wants the wise men to report back to him when they know where he is, so he too can pay homage. But of course, we know that is the last thing he would do.
The wise men continue their search, they follow the star and are overwhelmed with joy when they find Mary & Joseph and Jesus. The wise men kneel down before the baby Jesus and offer their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they go home by another road. We remember the Wise Men, they are in our crèche scenes, we sing about them, but we forget that their place in our Christmas Story is also a political one. For this story is also about Herod who will do anything to hold onto his power.
As one Anglican priest put it…
"Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee." (Joy Carroll Wallis)Remember that in 6 BC, Rome was the occupying power in the land of Israel. Caesar Augustus was on the thrown, the first Roman emperor that unified the empire. Herod the Great ruled the land of Judea. He was King because Rome put him there. He was distrusted and disliked by the population because of his connections to Rome and his brutality. In the midst of this, God comes to us and Jesus is born. We remember that he was born not among family & friends, but in a stable with animals. The holy family are outcasts and would become refugees.
Our Christmas Story often ends with the Wise Men leaving by another road, but it doesn’t end there at all. For Joseph is likewise warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem and flee to Egypt for Herod wants to destroy Jesus. And Joseph listens to the dream, he protects his family and they escape to Egypt just in time. For Matthew then tells us of the slaughter of the innocents, males 2 years old and younger in the region of Bethlehem ordered killed by Herod after Herod did not hear from the wise men. Thankfully his murderous reign comes to an end, and Mary & Joseph who are refugees in the land of Egypt return with Jesus and make their home in Nazareth in Galilee after Herod's death.
Herod is not a cuddly character we embrace and we often forget his role in that first Christmas, but He reminds us that the world that Jesus was born into, is the same world we live in now. War, death, murder, political infighting, take place now as they did then. And innocent people are often caught in the middle and end up as victims and refugees. But we also know that God intercedes on our behalf in the best and worst of times; even with the power of Rome & Herod in place, God comes to us in a helpless baby in their midst. He is not recognized except for some outsiders, he is forced to flee from Bethlehem because his life is threatened, he is a refugee in a country and will find no home until Herod is dead.
Where is the star that we follow? Where does our faith call us to use our gifts?
One such ministry is called Iris - Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services. It is a program of our Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and is the local affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries and the Immigration and Refugee Program of Church World Service. IRIS resettles approximately 100 refugees each year. Currently, over half of IRIS’s refugee clients come from Iraq. Others come from Afghanistan, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries.
And as reminder of what this ministry is all about, the logo for Episcopal Migration Ministries has Mary riding a donkey carrying Jesus as Joseph follows behind them looking back, as they flee to Egypt. For we are reminded on this Sunday to use our gifts, to pray, to lift up and give our voice and our actions to help those fleeing persecution and danger, to see Christ in this world through the lives of the children and how they suffer, and to stand up against the Herod's of this world.
For Christmas is more than our coming to the manger to pay homage, it is also how we give our gifts to the world in the name of the one who was a refugee, who was terrorized and threatened, who died at the hands of politics and power. It is offering our gifts to the Christ Child in our midst today...
For when the song of the angels is stilledOur Christmas festivities are nearing the end, but our work of Christmas has just begun. Let us journey and find the Christ child knowing it may lead us not to palaces or to places of joy, but to refugee camps, war zones, ghettos, places of poverty and areas of destruction. Let us help shed the light of Christ to those who walk in darkness today. Because today we celebrate the Light that has come into the world for all people, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it.
when the star in the sky is gone
when the kings and princes are home
when the shepherds are back with their flocks
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost
to heal the broken
to feed the hungry
to release the prisoner
to rebuild the nations
to bring peace among the people
to make music in the heart.
Let us pray: O God, we ask your living protection of all refugees yearning for freedom and hope in a new land. May we ever remember that the Holy Family, too, were refugees as they fled persecution. Bless, guide and lead us in faith to open doors and to open our hearts through this ministry of hospitality. Give us strength, vision and compassion as we work together to welcome those in need. We ask this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN.