The Refugee Jesus and Christmas
Christmas is at our doorstep once again. At Christmas we commemorate Christ’s birth on earth in flesh and blood like us. It is Lord’s birthday. As we all remember birthdays of our dear ones with joy we also remember the Birthday of Jesus with joy. Together with the angels we sing, ‘Joy to the World… the Lord has come!’
Christmas should not just remain a feast, a commemoration or a celebration in the Church; it should also touch our personal life. As the birth of the Lord was meaningful to the shepherds and to the people of Jesus’ own time, it should be meaningful to us today. We are invited to relate it to the present day society. We should reflect on the Lord’s birth as it is connected to our life and that of the society. Mary understood and realized the birthday of the Lord not only in her body but also in her mind and heart. She sang, “He has done great things for me… He has put down the proud and exalted the lowly…’
We need to look at so many happenings of the society around us. What do they mean to us as Christians? How can we look at them with the eyes of faith? How can we influence them with our Christian consciousness? Can we challenge them with our Christian principles and morality? We are constantly challenged by issues such as exploitation of the vulnerable, child abuse, human trafficking, war, conflict and situations such as refugees and immigrants? They happened at the time of the First Christmas and it happens today.
St. Paul said, ‘Jesus was human like us in all things, but sin.” Yes, Jesus went through all difficulties and troubles human life brings. Perhaps he went through them more than many of us. Even before he was born he was deprived of safety and privacy at his birth. Within few days of his birth he had to flee to save his life. In deed he was a refugee throughout his childhood. Probably he learnt to cope with strange cultures, languages and life-styles. The uncertain life lasted until the death of a tyrant ruler when they could return to their homeland. Later he had to live in an environment of oppression under the Roman colonial regime. This lasted until his death on the cross.
What does Christmas mean to me this year? For the past six months I am actively involved in refugee ministry as the Chaplain for Refugees in the Archdiocese of Gulu ministering to over 36,000 people in Palabek Refugees Settlement in Lamwo district, close to the South Sudan border. I often tell my unfortunate Christians and listeners in the Refugees Settlement that Jesus was a Refugee, at least for about 12 years of his life he lived in a strange land deprived of everything in life just as they are today. His parents Mary and Joseph made great sacrifices to keep their son alive.
Every refugee wants to return to his or her homeland. They wait for the day to return to their home and start a new life. In the same way Mary and Joseph took their little son to their home after cruel years spent in Egypt. Perhaps he was so excited to see Jerusalem, his fatherland and he got lost in his excitement in seeing the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. He showed a great sense of pride and belonging even though he was only 12 years old. Probably that was the first time he visited Jerusalem, about which he heard so many exciting stories. Indeed that was a longing heart of a refugee-returnee to his homeland! The celebration of Christmas and its season every year should remind us of these hard realities of life that Jesus and his parents went through.
In relation to the situation of refugees in Uganda, the message of Christmas and the festive season comes so alive and vivid. Statistics tell us that there are about 1.2 million refugees are hosted in Uganda. About 86% of the refugees are young women and children. Now Uganda has become their temporary home. In this temporary home these unfortunate brothers and sisters struggle hard to live with meager supply of basic things. Even education and medical care becomes a luxury for them. In all these struggles it is consoling to know that Jesus became a refugee within few days into his incarnation. Hardship and hostility were the hard realities that Jesus had to face when he decided to be human like us. He chose this way to redeem us… at out of love for us.
In the refugee situation, children suffer more than the adults. They suffer for the sins and mistakes of others. They are deprived of their childhood, their freedom, their education and their basic needs. The other day I asked a little boy of 10 years, ‘what do you miss most in the refugee camp?’ and his quick answer was, ‘I want to go to school… I was in Primary Class Three and I came here with my parents, I have not gone to school ever since, now I want to go to school.’ Keeping little children doing nothing is perhaps the biggest punishment we can give them.
What did Mary and Joseph carry to Egypt? Perhaps nothing much. The gospels tell us that there was no place for the pregnant mother to give birth and they were forced to take shelter in a cow-shed. In Bethlehem, they were passersby, they were strangers, and they were the most needy people. From a miserable place they had to run to Egypt. A few days ago I asked a refugee, ‘what did you carry with you when you began to run for life in South Sudan?’ And his quick answer was ‘I grabbed my three year child and my wife took few pieces of clothes and we ran.’ Answer from another man was even more amazing, ‘As I was looking for my child, I could not find him, and I found my neighbour’s child and I came with her.’ In the same way the only concern of Mary and Joseph was their new born child—Jesus.
At the refugee settlement, one night I went to sleep with a heavy heart. I had just witnessed a group of new arrival of refugees. They were given a tarpaulin, five poles of trees and few meters of robes to make a shelter, plus a few household items. As they were given a small plot of land to pitch their tent, I had gone to give them some clothes, it began to rain. I ran away to my little hut taking shelter. But I was sure those group of unfortunate 30 people among them were women and children spent their night in the rain. Can we picture Mary and Joseph looking for shelter to protect their new born child—Jesus?
Besides the issue of refugees and migrants of recent months and years, there are so many other suffering sections of humanity everywhere in the world. There are people who were abducted, trafficked, enslaved in war and conflict and so many others pushed to the peripheries of the society for the reasons of economy, politics and organized crimes. They all remind us of sufferings and hardships Jesus went through from his birth and throughout his life.
Luke summarizes the upbringing of Jesus in one beautiful sentence: Mary treasured all these things in her heart and pondered over them. It was prayerful remembrance of all that happened during Christmas. It was not a bitter feeling. It was a joyful musing. It was a faith-filled recollection of being available to God’s call. Mary relived Christmas scene often in her life. They were often reminded to her by various events until the cross. Christmas becomes meaningful when we look at it with faith and trust in God and his ways.
May the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas open our eyes and hearts to the suffering people of today’s society, who are often within our own reach. Let Christmas help us to be more compassionate.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
Chaplain for Refugees, Archdiocese of Gulu.