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.