Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Matthew 2:1-12, New King James Version
But we stopped reading at verse 12, as the wise men decide not to tell King Herod where the child is. And after that the story takes a much more sinister turn. There are already hints of this, as Herod and his court are troubled that the wise men claim that a new king has been born. Herod tells them to go and find the child and bring back word, so that he may also go and worship him, and it seems that he may not be entirely sincere. Here is how the story continues in Matthew’s Gospel:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”This is a much more disturbing story than the wise men’s visit. We would rather not sing about it, although there is an old Christmas song, the Coventry Carol, with the lyrics:
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
Herod the King, in his raging,The Church, though, continues to tell this story, called the Massacre of the Innocents. These holy innocents, the boys of Bethlehem killed by Herod, are often considered to be the first Christian martyrs.
charged he hath this day,
his men of might, in his own sight,
all children young, to slay.
This seems very long ago and far away. So exotic and so upsetting. Or is it so long ago? Is it so far away? Who are the Holy Innocents of today? Are they the children of Yemen, victims of the ongoing war launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies? In Yemen 394,000 children under the age of five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Millions more barely have enough to eat, while the war has resulted in a lack of safe water, the spread of disease, and the destruction of hospitals. Are the holy innocents the 15 percent of Canadian children, one in seven, who live in poverty? Are they the Indigenous children who account for nearly half of all children in foster care in Canada? What are the causes of such a disproportionate number of Indigenous kids being removed from their homes? Are the holy innocents the children taken from their parents at the American border with Mexico, in many cases never to be reunited with their families again? Families from Central America have been arrested by the American authorities, the children taken away, placed in cages and then in tents in camps in the desert, and often put up for adoption after their parents have been deported. We don’t know what happens in these camps as journalists and even elected representatives aren’t allowed in. We do know that here you can’t work with children in hockey or Sunday school or any other setting without a police check, but there is no screening for the private contractors who operate these detention facilities. There are stories of babies taken from their mothers who are just given to teenage girls in the camps to look after, without diapers or formula. We do know that two children have died in detention.
Now, people try to explain all this away. Don’t try to sneak into the country illegally, they say, if you don’t want your kids taken away. But these families are usually applying at a border crossing for asylum as refugees, which is perfectly legal under American law. And having your children ripped away and placed for adoption is a disproportionate and cruel punishment, although the cruelty is probably the point to deter refugees and immigrants from coming.
This Epiphany story shows that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees. Now, people deny this too. Calling Jesus a refugee is very controversial. Refugees may have left everything behind to escape persecution and violence, but people see them as fakers, as undeserving, as potential terrorists, so there’s no way Jesus could have been one. But it’s right in the story. Verse 13, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt” – in Matthew’s Gospel the Greek word translated as “flee” is pheuge, which is the root of the word “refugee.” Jesus and his parents were fleeing political violence. They were refugees. My Loyalist ancestors who fled the American Revolution, like the ancestors of a lot of us here, were refugees. People still quibble, saying the Holy Family was traveling within the Roman Empire, not across an international border, so they weren’t refugees, but of course borders as we understand them today are a recent development. This kind of nitpicking can’t change the story, or the broad story of the Bible, which tells a long story, several books long, of the people of Israel fleeing oppression, and then emphasizes again and again how God’s people are to welcome refugees and immigrants, for they were foreigners themselves in Egypt.
This story of the massacre of the innocents and a family’s narrow escape is still fresh, still unnerving. It is being acted out all over the world right now. Someone tweeted - and I agree - that Herod was a paranoid, narcissistic, authoritarian ruler who did not hesitate to destroy children when his power was threatened. Any resemblance to any political leaders today isn’t a coincidence. And the reaction to the refugee crisis shows how, as someone else said, some Christians may worship the name of King Jesus but they follow the policies of King Herod.
If The Epiphany is about Jesus being revealed to the world, then his being a refugee is as much a part of who he is as his being the saviour worshipped by the wise men. Jesus being a refugee tells the world that God coming among us in Jesus shares the experiences, the suffering, of the most marginalized and oppressed people. Jesus being a refugee underlines for us, who follow him today, God’s instructions in Scripture, to show love for foreigners, for God’s people were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. And may we ever see the splendour of Jesus, who so thoroughly identified with humanity that he was, indeed, a refugee in Egypt.