In my church is a nativity. I imagine this particular tableau is repeated across the United Kingdom in many churches. Mary and Joseph stand looking proudly down at their newborn son who is swaddled in cloth in a manger. The usual array of animals, kings, shepherds and angels watch on. The picture-perfect moment is tranquil and peaceful, but there is something this year that nettles me about this idyllic nativity. I find myself thinking about the region Jesus was born into and some of my own recent travel to the Middle East. I find myself reflecting on the joy of the birth of the infant king but also considering what happened next. Because Jesus, even as a small and vulnerable child, was already being persecuted. As soon as the Magi had left from their visit Joseph was instructed by an angel of the Lord to take his son and wife and to flee – to seek refuge in a foreign land. There is something profoundly important to me that Jesus Christ walked this earth as an undocumented child refugee. When we hear Jesus later in life say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in”, he speaks as someone who really knows what it means to be a person in a foreign land. We don’t tend to picture this part of Jesus’ early story; it perhaps takes the gloss away from our sanitised stable scene.
In the Bible we are reminded time and time again of God’s great love for the refugee and in the Gospel of Matthew we are told that even the Son of Man lacked a place to lay his head. Jesus’ miraculous escape to Egypt with his earthly mother and father should not mean that we overlook the nature of his circumstances. He and his family survived, but they survived as refugees. We do not often illustrate this in our nativity depictions – we do not capture the persecution, the sudden journey, the loneliness, the poverty and uncertainty or undoubtedly the fear of being forced to flee with a small baby in your arms. We leave the family in Bethlehem, with a bright star overhead.
In May, I sat with a Syrian teenager in Amman in Jordan, she perched on the floor of an abandoned office block rubbing her pregnant belly. This was to be Amani’s second child, she already had a delightfully curious baby daughter who peeped up at me through long brown eyelashes. Amani was only 19 but her eyes looked tired and her face old. She spoke in the soft, nervous cadence of a teenager but her words carried stories of a journey that I could barely begin to comprehend and the news of the loss of her family and friends back in Syria. She was too small to carry a baby healthily, she had not been eating enough and had become pregnant soon after having her first child, but she told me that she wanted more children as they made her feel wanted, safe and whole again. Amani and her husband both spoke of their longing to return home and their feelings of hopelessness living as refugees. I left their small one-room dwelling wondering what would become of them and their babies. The situation seemed such a desperate one to bring a new child in to. Yet, when the young parents looked at their daughter Saja, their eyes lit up and they would shyly smile at each other. Something good had come into a world where for the past three years much of their existence had been painful. I could understand their need to feel love again.
All We Can has been working in the Middle East responding to the refugee crisis for nearly five years now. In both Jordan and Lebanon our local partners have been reaching out to families like Amani’s offering them assistance in the form of shelter, provisions, healthcare and emotional support. Hundreds-of-thousands of people have now fled Syria and Iraq in the search of safety and a place to lay their head. Many babies like Saja are being born in a country that their parents do not call home. When I returned from Jordan some of my friends asked me whether it felt like the work All We Can is engaged in feels like a drop in the ocean. To be honest, when you look at the scale of this crisis, it does. But it is still deeply worthwhile. Because for mums like Amani the fact someone cares is enough to offer hope. To be a stranger in a foreign land but to have someone reach out and welcome you, listen to you, help you and advise you changes everything. When I look at Mary in the nativity scene this year I also think of Amani, who by now will have had her second baby, and I think of other women like her living in vulnerable and uncertain circumstances far away from home.
At Christmas time I think of the nativity scene and that very special family huddled together and I think of love. I think of the love of God for a hurting world that needed a saviour. I think of the love of my own family as we gather together in our home playing Christmas games and listening to Christmas music. I think of the love in Amani’s eyes as she gazed at her daughter in a bare and desolate room in Amman. I think of the love that came into the world in the form of baby Jesus. A baby who was carried away to a foreign land by his teenage mother, and father. A baby who became a child who knew what it was to grow up as a foreigner. The love of a child who grew into a man and gave up his life for the world. Knowing Jesus was himself a refugee makes his message of love more powerful this Christmas time, and reminds me of our calling to also love. To love the stranger. And this Christmas I think that our world needs that kind of love more than ever.