ASK FATHER: Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph “refugees”? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

Several readers have asked whether or not the Holy Family were refugees. Some are reacting to “nativity” scenes, showing them in cages, and so forth, which is an obvious manipulation of the Nativity narrative to score cheap political shots, at worst, and crass manipulation through sentimentality at best.

So, to the question. Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph “refugees”? Yes, and no.

No, not when they went to Bethlehem. Yes, when they went to Egypt.

When they went to Bethlehem, they were responding to the census. In fact, Joseph and Mary demonstrated that law should be respected. They obeyed the edict. They were unfortunate in the way they were treated, but there was nothing to be done about that. There wasn’t enough room in better quarters. It was, as Tolkien would put it, an eucatastrophe for them: the bad situation provided for unfathomable spiritual richness concerning our contemplation of the Christ Child.

So, no, they were not refugees when they were in Bethlehem. They were, however, refugees when they fled to Egypt for fear of Herod, who commanded that all the newborns be slain. Of course they were, in that flight to Egypt, refugees. It’s obvious.  Matthew 2:13 even uses the word pheuge, to which English “refuge” is related.

However, we cannot equate the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt one to one with the massive immigration from the south to these USA, mostly illegal. In the ancient world under the Pax Romana going from Palestine to Egypt was not like going from one modern nation state to another. The Holy Family enjoyed a kind of citizenship in the Empire, though not full citizenship, like Paul. They would have traveled on the relatively safe road sometimes called the Via Maris, a major trade route established already for many centuries.   There was a Jewish community in Egypt.

Still, in fact, they were fleeing, seeking refuge, in a new place, a different political prescription, though within the Roman dominion, for fear of death.

When the Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt, a closer analogy was that they were fleeing from, say, Illinois to Wisconsin, rather than from Honduras to Texas. Nevertheless, they were fleeing.   Say you need to get out of Chicago because a gang wants your child’s head. You high tail it to Madison for a while till things cool down.  You don’t need a visa to go across the border to Madison.  That’s different from going from one nation state to another, illegally.

Both scenarios involve taking refuge for fear of murder.  That’s not nothing.

The comparison of the illegal immigrant and the Holy Family fades a little more when it comes to the underlying and ultimate reason for going to Egypt.  The Lord, as the Gospel of Matthew underscores by citing Hosea, was foretold to come out of Egypt.  The Lord’s presence in and departure from Egypt was foreshadowed by Joseph and by Moses, archetypes of the Messiah to come.  Christ was a new Moses, who would lead people into a new Promised Land, His Kingdom, His Person.  To come from Egypt, the Lord had to go there in the first place.  That’s not what ordinary modern (legal or illegal) immigrants are doing: they are travelling for human motives, not to fulfill prophecy.   God works with foreseen human events, such as the depredations of a paranoid half-Jewish, thug ruler, to align salvation history. The Holy Family went to Egypt on the surface because of Herod.  Don’t get me wrong: that was a real and serious reason.  But the deeper reason was, simultaneously, because it was needed in God’s plan that Christ come from Egypt so that He would be that much more easily recognized for who He truly was.  Hence, through God’s foreknowledge, Christ, swept up in the tide of human events, simultaneously fulfilled the prophecies about Him in the sacred writings.  Both occurred together, but one reason was more profound than the other.

Furthermore, Joseph and the Family were directed by an angel.  An angel told Joseph, go here, go there, and when to go.   When an angel tells you do to something, you do it: there is no question that you have been told God’s will.

There isn’t much evidence at this point that immigrants from all over the place (recently I read of Congolese) coming across the US border, mostly illegally, are foreshadowed and prophesied in Scripture.  If there is, I’d like to know what it is.  And I doubt angels were involved.  The Holy Family was literally doing God’s will.  Illegal immigrants?  They seem to be doing their own will, and some of them have good motives.

So, no, it isn’t a good idea to utilize images of the Holy Family in that way, depict them as modern illegal immigrants.  The Holy Family, whose members obeyed laws (and angels), should never be instrumentalized to justify open borders or lawlessness on the part of illegal immigrants. Laws are to be respected and followed, or, if necessary changed in the course of things.

None of that dismisses the Christian obligation to perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

How we are to treat immigrants, however, is certainly underscored in the Word of God, but let’s not exaggerate their identity with the Holy Family.

I think there is a better image, which I’ll get to, below.

Legality or illegality apart, in concrete situations we are obliged by human decency and by God’s direction and example, to treat true refugees well.  References to the life and ministry of the Lord are helpful in consideration of refugees. The Lord refers to himself as having no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58).  You remember in the parable the fate of those who did not give Christ, in the person of the needy, something to drink.  He and his disciples relayed on hospitality (Mark 6:81-11, Matthew 10:9-10, Luke 9:3). It is a testimony against the non-hospitable when travelers leave you in your own dust (Mark 6:11).   This is not license to ignore the law.   This is admonishment to be decent to human beings.

Lastly, I’ll cite an Apostolic Constitution – the highest form of papal document, usually with juridical effect.  In 1952 Ven. Pius XII issued Exsul Familia, which is subtitled “De spirituali emigrantium cura“.

Mind you, this is about the spiritual care of migrants, not material care.   However, although the soul is more important, sometimes the body needs the proverbial blanket and bowl of soup before you can also feed the soul.

This is pretty powerful stuff, especially in the elegant Latin.  Let’s see just the beginning:

Exsul Familia Nazarethana Iesus, Maria, Ioseph, cum ad Aegyptum emigrans tum in Aegypto profuga impii regis iram aufugiens, typus, exemplar et praesidium exstat omnium quorumlibet temporum et locorum emigrantium, peregrinorum ac profugorum omne genus, qui, vel metu persecutionum vel egestate compulsi, patrium locum suavesque parentes et propinquos ac dulces amicos derelinquere coguntur et aliena petere.

English below, but be patient.

Archetypes are not exact, whether Moses and Joseph for Christ coming from Egypt, or the Holy Family for all manner of immigrants.   The Holy Family had an overriding reason to go to Egypt and immigrants have many.

It is hard to get the impact of a couple of those Latin words.

First, praesidium.  This is “help, assistance, aid”.  It is also, “protection, defense” and even describes a group of soldiers like a guard or escort.  Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Santa Dei Genetrix, we sing: “Beneath your defending assistance we flee together/ take refuge, O Holy Mother of God”.  One of the most ancient prayers to Mary there is.   The Holy Family is the praesidium of every migrant, refugee and pilgrim as if they were, try to picture this, armed soldiers marching with them in this vale of tears.  You can see Joseph with his hammer on the watch, Mary with her cloak over them, the Christ Child shining with light to lead the way.  Praesidium is “everything needed for safety”.  This is a better image, than trying to equate them.

Then, the last term of that periodic sentence, so beautifully and forcefully crafted: aliena.  This is a neuter plural of alienum and it contains an over arching meaning of something belonging to other people and, hence, strange and not, of course, your own.  I am reminded of an image Dante uses to describe exile: salty bread.  The Florentines don’t put salt in their bread.  So, when a Florentine like Dante tasted salty bread, it was a powerful reminder that he was in exile.  You are eating someone else’s bread.  Sometimes it’s the small and familiar that hits you so mightily.  There is a movie, The Hundred Foot Journey, in which the protagonist, a chef who immigrated to Paris from India who has attained a very high status, breaks down at the taste and smell of spices from his native place.   That mellifluous word aliena is packed with meaning.   Once upon a time, when I was forced to make the choice to leave home or to abandon my vocation to the priesthood because of local persecution in my native place, a now-deceased priest said to me, “If you leave here, no matter where you go, you will always be considered an outsider. If you ever come back, you will never be accepted.”  That has been the exact course of my life for over 30 years.  Aliena.   It means that even the ground you stand on and the air you breathe is somehow not your own.  In this context, there are oceans of risk in that word.   The human spirit can rise to these challenges, eucatastrophes, eagerly shake the dust, leave a native place and after arduous journeys with joy make a new life.  But the immigrant or ex-pat remembers.

In English (one translation)…

The homeless Holy Family of Nazareth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, both removing into Egypt and as fugitives fleeing the rage of an impious king, is the archetype, exemplar and defense of every migrant, pilgrim, and refugee of any kind of all times and places whatsoever, who, either by fear of persecution or driven by want, are forced to forsake the place of their fathers, their cherished relatives, neighbors and dear friends and to seek all that is foreign.

Praesidium.  I think this is a better way to depict the Holy Family in regard to illegal immigrants.  Helping them get legal is obviously and necessarily part of that.  It isn’t charity to deny truth.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. PurrPurr says:

    There are three points I would like to add to this excellent article. 1. After times improved and the danger had passed, the Holy Family returned to their native land and remained there. 2. They did not flee for monetary reasons. 3. They went where the angel directed them, not where they thought it would be more advantageous, i.e., like when illegal aliens pass through other countries which are willing to accept them, but say “no”, because they want to enter the USA not just leave their country.

  2. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Also, the Holy Family was solvent. Jesus was born in a stable because the hotel was fully booked, not because Joseph could not afford it.

    [Solvent but on the poor side. They fulfilled the rites in the Temple with the Levitical option for the poor, two doves or pigeons instead of a lamb. Perhaps later Joseph, as a carpenter, found more prosperity, but they were lean at the beginning.]

  3. GregB says:

    As the article says, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to comply with the census. How many people were in the same boat and were there because of the census? The story of Mary and Joseph not finding a room at an inn could be a story of a community overwhelmed by there being more people than the community could handle at one time.
    The USA may be a rich powerful nation, but it does not have unlimited resources. There are only so many people that the USA can admit at one time while maintaining an orderly immigration process. A responsible host doesn’t invite more guests than the host can provide hospitality for. Illegal immigrants are gate-crashers. The mess at the Southern border is what happens when you have a large number of gate-crashers.

  4. Charles E Flynn says:

    A search at Google for:

    holy family Egypt time roman province refugees
    produces: About 4,910,000 results (0.60 seconds)

    Oddly, a search for:

    holy family Egypt at the time roman province refugees
    produces: About 4,090,000 results (0.51 seconds)

    In both searches, a familiar person is the author of the first result.

    [People should do searches with my name in the search to drive my results higher. I know for sure I’m being pushed down by Google.]

  5. Markus says:

    I always wondered what happened to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented by the wise men.
    Perhaps it was, pure speculation, to sustain Mary and Christ after Joseph’s passing. Or given away in a charitable act. Can wait a while to find out.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    A search at Google for:

    holy family Egypt time roman province refugees father z
    produces: About 4,450,000 results (0.82 seconds) Missing: z ?| Must include: z

    If we include the “z”, we get more hits, oddly enough:
    About 5,130,000 results (0.48 seconds)
    The 10th result is a Website with an interesting name, at which Father Z’s article appears in good company:

  7. JARay says:

    Regarding the birth of Jesus in a stable “because there was no room for them in the Inn” is often misunderstood, in my opinion. It was not uncommon in those days for people to live with their animals. The animals gave warmth and were not intrusive creatures. The Inn did not have a “Maternity Wing” and the offer by the Innkeeper of the privacy of the stable as a place for Mary to give birth to her child would have been more than welcomed by Joseph for the warmth afforded by the animals and the privacy afforded in the stable as a place for his wife to give birth! Inns were only two room affairs with a room for the men and a second room for the women who were staying at the Inn. The third room was the stable with the privacy afforded by it! The Innkeeper did the very best he could!

  8. catholiccomelately says:

    Father Z, thank you. This “rant” was really helpful to me. As a granddaughter of legal immigrants and a mother-in-law to a legal immigrant, I am keenly aware of the blessings of our nation to those who come, as I am of my own privileged birth here. It has sometimes been hard for me to soften my heart sufficiently for those who come illegally … I feel deeply for them but have also seen so many divisions arise among us, so many exploitations of the people who live in the shadows, and too many illegals who have come for selfish or harmful reasons.
    I will keep your thoughts in my prayers and meditations.

  9. JonPatrick says:

    Like catholiccomelately I am also a legal immigrant who came to this country some time ago before the laws were changed making it difficult for Europeans to immigrate here. While I also feel for the illegal immigrants I also worry that this immigration is being promoted and used by those trying to change the political makeup of our country. This may be why there is such resistance to allowing Christians from the Middle East to take refuge here.

  10. Let me add another point about the housing the Holy Family used while in Bethlehem. When the Magi arrived, the Gospel clearly says they entered “a house.” We don’t know exactly how long after the birth of Jesus this visit came, but it seems clear it didn’t happen that very night, and that when it came, Joseph had found other quarters for his family. In other words, Joseph and Mary ended up in a stable not because they were met with hostility, or because there was no housing, but because the baby was on the way, and they had to work things out the best they could.

    There are legitimate points to be made about public policy regarding immigration, and whether we ought to take a different approach; but it would be wise to avoid hitching those proposals to Scripture without very careful exegesis.

  11. bobbird says:

    Within the context of the Roman Empire there were Imperial Provinces, Client Kingdoms and conquered territories. You see this manifested when Joseph had to skip Judea and go to Galillee, outside of the new king’s jurisdiction after Herod the Great had died. Rome was always vigilant at keeping up sham appearances, from their own shredded constitution to the remote parts of the empire. In the TV series Jesus of Nazareth this is also referenced when Herod laments that the three wise men had crossed his frontiers without sending word or greeting. Fr. Z’s analogy of moving from state-to-state is good if we knew what Egypt’s status was within the empire at that time. Nevertheless, it is correct to presume that Joseph’s entering Egypt was done in respect to the laws of the time.

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