Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, recognized only by Catholics). Here the reader is ordered to honor his parents and therefore will be happy with his own children. He is to care for his elderly parents even if their minds fail. Matthew’s Gospel recounts the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. Herod learned of the birth of Jesus and demanded that all male children around Jesus’ age be slaughtered. After Herod died they returned to Israel, and settled in Nazareth.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) and as an adult I view this feast much differently than I did as a child. Growing up many of us were told that the Holy Family was the perfect family and we should aspire to be like them. Every argument with a sibling, every act of disobedience with our parents showed us how we fell short of imitating the Holy Family.
But today’s Gospel paints an entirely different picture. We see the Holy Family in exile and I can’t help but wonder what they thought. Nearly from their beginning Joseph and Mary lived in fear for their lives. And you have to admit: this isn’t exactly how we would expect the Redeemer to enter the world. No room at the inn, born in a barn, swaddled in a feeding trough, and now on the run.
Mary and Joseph weren’t promised much, only that their child will be called the Son of the Most High, that he will restore the throne of David, and his reign will be without end. All this while they sat in Egypt not knowing their next step while all boys under two years old in Bethlehem were being killed under Herod’s orders.
Reading events from thousands of years ago present difficulties for us. These days most of us don’t know many lepers or Samaritans or Pharisees. Our newspapers don’t bring us pictures of shepherds or tax collectors or Roman soldiers. Cable TV doesn’t stream images of John the Baptist or Herod or the Temple.
But one thing we do have that has remained remarkably consistent is this: We live among refugees. From the time of the Holy Family until now people have always needed to leave their homes, their livelihoods, and their families. And they’ve all done it involuntarily. Nobody chooses exile and nobody wants to be a refugee.
Today we see people fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (particularly young men who were told to either join the gang MS-13, face murder, or flee). People forced out of North Africa by sailing to Italy in overloaded and dangerous boats, choosing possible drowning over staying. Ordinary people in Syria who only want to make a living for their families.
And we need to understand that they are not merely travelers or pilgrims: they are people in desperate states. They often leave with little or no notice, having no idea when or even if they’ll be able to return. They bring only what they can carry and only go as fast as their slowest member.
They also often go to places where they cannot use their gifts and talents. I once worked with a coworker in hospice who fled her country: she was a dentist in her own country and the United States refused to acknowledge either her education or her skills. She now works as a home health aid, and she’s outstanding at it. But the hurtles to her being able to practice dentistry in her adopted country have proved to be insurmountable. Her patients benefit from her skills as a home health aid but there are others who don’t benefit from her skills as a dentist.
For some it’s much worse. They find themselves trapped in refugee camps where they are not allowed to leave or even work. Most of them receive help from nonprofit organizations, but that charity could hardly be called the life she deserves or the work she can do.
This shows an ugly point: when they are not welcomed they are not welcomed for reasons that should make us weep. I was once told that conflicts happen for only three reasons: resources, feelings, and values. Conflicts over resources tell us that the finite amount of food/land/water/spouses give us justification to fear them. And anything we do to discourage or block them is justified.
Time and again I’ve heard people say (subtly and not subtly) that “those people can’t come here because there won’t be enough for me.” Gandhi famously said that the world provides enough for our need but not enough for our greed. When we shut out others we tell them that our greed is more important than their need. Later in Matthew (chapter 25) Jesus tells us that when we don’t welcome the stranger, we don’t welcome him.
Even worse, in the last few years we’ve seen this go into a more dangerous area. We all know people who believe that refugees come here wanting to directly harm us. They’re not just hungry, they’re not just out for our stuff, they want to rob and kill us. They’re not refugees, they are invaders.
Nothing is further from the truth. People who travel for ill intent don’t need to walk dozens or hundreds of miles in all weather; by and large they have the ability and resources to travel by other means (which explains multiple layers of airport security).
Refugees are not criminals. They didn’t want to flee and they don’t want to beg. We don’t know how the Holy Family supported themselves but we can assume it wasn’t an easy life. We also don’t know how long they were in exile, but it probably wasn’t more than a few years. Today’s refugee camps can often last for years and even generations.
I want to be clear without being harsh: Herod murdered several babies and we call them the “Holy Innocents” (whose feast day is this Saturday) and nobody today would defend Herod. But when we see refugees as dangerous to us, we share at least some of Herod’s values. When we welcome refugees and give to their need from our surplus we share Jesus’ values.
Let’s look at today’s refugees as we look at the Holy Family.