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December 2011 Issue

Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus and Other Immigrants

These ethnic Uzbek refugees from  Afghanistan live in tents in the Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan.
These ethnic Uzbek refugees from Afghanistan live in tents in the Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan.

By Cindy Johnson

The Christmas story is a lesson on God’s greatest commandments of all.

As a child I loved going to Sunday school at Christmas time. We learned all about Jesus’ birth and how his family went on this great journey, traveling through exotic places and wonderful lands. Mary got to ride on a donkey, and Jesus was born in a manger surrounded by animals. The sheep were cute, the camels were big and strong, and a cow was always alongside the other animals gazing at Baby Jesus. The shepherds appeared a few minutes later and everyone was happy.

The best part was yet to come. A few days later, some kings come by and drop off wonderful gifts. The birth narrative ends happily. We then learned to try to live like Jesus, not to lie or steal and to love God and everyone else. 

As an adult, I often reflect on my understanding about Jesus’ birth. What I was taught as a child was true, but a lot more was going on. Joseph and Mary were great parents, but they migrated out of necessity.

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” - Luke 2:1, 4-5 (Revised Standard Version)

I now know that it was probably not fun for Mary to travel so close to her due date. It was a trip forced on them by the government. It must have been hard to travel while pregnant on a donkey or on foot without many of the conveniences available today. When they got to their destination they ran into another problem.

“And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” - Luke 2:6-7

Mary and Joseph were strangers and looked for someone to welcome them, but they could not even get help in the inn. I always believed the innkeeper offered the manger to them, but he or she is not mentioned in the Bible. One thing for sure is that Joseph and Mary, on their own or with the help of someone, stayed in a manger the night Mary gave birth to Jesus. Because people were not welcoming strangers like Jesus’ family, Mary gave birth without the accommodations of the day.

The cute animals I loved as a child might not have been so great to have around when Mary was giving birth. They might have been unclean, smelly and not as well behaved as portrayed in our Christmas pageants. Indeed, Joseph and Mary may not have received a cordial welcome even from the Hebrew people in Bethlehem.

Mary and Joseph were from the district of Galilee. Hebrews from Galilee were not considered as well bred as the people of Judea, which was the seat of the government, the center of the temple and religious festivals.

Galilee, on the other hand, was the center of commerce and attracted people from the East to the West. Galileans interacted with “those” people, many of whom were not Hebrew and considered second-class, and in some cases formed close relationships with them.

Revisiting the Christmas Story

A similar experience is playing out in the United States today. Undocumented people do not receive a cordial welcome. Undocumented men, women and children are not only ignored but are often separated from their families and moved from detention center to detention center. In some detention centers the food and housing are not up to standards, hardly a cordial welcome from our government.

Mary and Joseph probably felt like strangers in their own country. Revisiting the Christmas story as an adult, many questions arise for me.

  • Did Jesus’ upbringing affect his teachings on the will of God?
  • How would the narrative of the birth of Christ have been different if Mary and Joseph had been welcomed in Bethlehem?

My favorite part of the Christmas narrative is found in Luke 2:8-20. The shepherds receive a surprise invitation to celebrate Christ’s birth. We know that the shepherds were a marginalized group at that time, so they must have felt blessed to be the first ones told about Jesus’ birth. They dropped everything they were doing and went to greet the Christ child. It was one great birthday party! There was celestial music! Special guests included angels!

  • Why was the angel of the Lord so quick to invite the shepherds to meet Jesus?

The next part of the narrative, when “wise men from the East” appear, shifts my thoughts from celebrations to immigrants looking for help. In Matthew 2:1-20 we learn King Herod saw Jesus as a threat to his power and so sought to harm Jesus. Joseph takes his family and flees the country. Like Jesus’ family, a lot of the immigrants I visit in detention centers or at United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Justice for Our Neighbors legal clinics have stories about immigrating because of grave dangers or severe hardships in their native countries.

Jesus’ family immigrates to Egypt when he was so young that it reminds me of the young people who would be helped by passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. DREAMers are youth who were brought to the United States without documentation by their parents when they very young. The DREAM Act would open a path to permanent residency status if they complete two years in the military or two years at an institution of higher learning after graduating from high school.

The wise men brought gifts and helped Jesus. The angels of the Lord helped Jesus by giving lifesaving information in dreams to both the wise men and Joseph. The wise men and Joseph helped Jesus by following God’s instructions, and because they did, Jesus grew up, taught us how to live and brought salvation.

  • Are there similarities between Herod’s government and some governments around the world?
  • The wise men, the angels and Joseph aided Jesus. How can we likewise aid immigrants? 

The Greatest Commandments

Jesus gave his followers two clear commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” - Matthew 22:34-40

The second commandment covers all people and excludes no one because of their home nation, skin color, language, physical stature or documentation status.

I love the story of the birth of Christ as much now as I did as a child for many of the same, although expanded, reasons. As an adult, it is still teaching me about God’s love and how Christ is calling us to live.

Cindy Johnson is United Methodist Women’s Kyung Za Yim Intern for Immigration. 

Last Updated: 03/17/2014

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