The Christmas story characters are mainly on the move – migrants in fact.
Jews have a prized book of stories, prophecies and rules. The Christians, as an offshoot of Judaism, treasured it and added their own stories resulting in what we call the Bible. Muslims have their story book – The Koran. Abraham was the fabled father of all three groups.
A dominant theme in both these books is migration. Half the time bible characters are on the move. As the story goes, God calls Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.”
As the stories go, that nation settles in Palestine for generations and then migrates to Egypt because of famine. There they settle but face the new calamity of enslavement. God raises up a leader, Moses, who leads them out of Egypt. Forty years of wandering in the desert to the promised land – where they settle again. The pattern is there – exodus followed by settlement. And God is the super organizer of all this – as the story goes.
That theme is bread and butter for Matthew and Luke. The stories of Israel are already solidly set in their cultural memory.
Jesus is their special focus. At first, Jesus’s followers saw him as a prophet of God’s plan for the future of his people. But the more they preached his message, the more they began to see him as a unique intervention of God into human history. He was the promised saviour of Israel.
So, some of the stories they developed about Jesus’s personal life mirrored the story of Israel itself. Matthew’s story of Jesus’s early life has several links with Israel’s story. Bethlehem in Judea will produce a future ruler of Israel according to the prophet Micah. So, in Matthew’s story, Jesus, though a boy from Nazareth up north in Galilee, is born in Bethlehem. Luke tells a different story in which Joseph takes Mary on a journey to Bethlehem to meet the requirements of a census. But the Micah prophesy is driving both stories. Luke and Matthew must have Jesus born in Bethlehem.
Another of Matthew’s stories has wise men from the east (Mesopotamia, where the action was in those days) come to Jerusalem looking for “the newborn king of the Jews”, Herod, the real king, is definitely not impressed. Being reminded of Micah’s prophesy, he sends troops to slaughter the infants of Bethlehem. Joseph is tipped off and flees to Egypt with Mary and the baby. A familiar story? Jesus’s status is enhanced by this story because, like Israel itself, he is saved by being a refugee in Egypt. He is the new Israel. And it is all God’s plan.
The Jews were great migrants. Two centuries before Jesus the Jewish diaspora was so big that they translated their scriptures from Hebrew to the commonly spoken language Greek, in order to give Jewish migrants who had settled in a new country, access to the book.
Islam, too, is a religion of migration. Within a century of its establishment, Islam had moved out of Arabia to much of the middle east and the Mediterranean –as conquering migrants bringing their religion.
Later, the Portuguese and Spaniards invaded and subjugated South America. They brought their Catholic religion and enforced it on the indigenous locals.
England made an art form of colonialism in India and Africa and of conquering immigrants in North America. Their religion caught on in varying degrees especially in North America with the later arrival of the Pilgrims as refugees.
The Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century spearheaded the migration of diaspora Jews from Europe and Africa to Palestine in the hope of getting control of enough territory to establish a permanent Jewish State. This tide turned into a flood after World War II because of the Nazi holocaust.
Migration is an ever-present feature of the human species. It usually happens in stressful situations of oppression or poverty or to seek a better life. In its turn, it creates more stress when it intrudes into other peoples’ territory. Settled migrants resent newer arrivals creating disputes and hostilities. Watch “Gangs of New York”.
Migration, therefore, is woven into the fabric of the three Abrahamic religions. Believers inevitably have an ancestry that goes back to somewhere else.
Migration is a major phenomenon of today’s globalised and unequal world. The push factors in some areas of the globe are huge. It forces cultural adjustments on both ends of the migrant journey. But it is inevitable; and it is better managed than resisted. National migration policies call for vision and fraternity. Vision to see the positive advantages of receiving newcomers who want to do better, and fraternity to realise that basically everyone is equal and deserves a fair go.
Christians love their stories because they tell them who they are and what they are here for. They especially love the Christmas story partly because it is one of peace and good will to all. But central to that story is displacement and relocation.
It is the ultimate irony when people confidently proclaim themselves to be Christian whilst being the nastiest dogs in the manger.
Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne Catholic priest now living in retirement.