*I wrote this short advent meditation for Lycoming Christian Church’s 2016 Advent Devotional Book, yet find it oddly appropriate this weekend*
“When he came down
He came down to Israel.
When there were problems
He came down to Africa.
So let us praise him
Praise him in an African way.”
- Swahili praise song
As Americans, we often read the story of the birth of Jesus and miss the political upheaval that was going on in Palestine at the time. Gripped by international forces and a mad king, Palestine was in the process of taking a census when King Herod received news of another king born in a small out-of-the-way town, Bethlehem. Herod is notorious for demolishing any apparent threats to his crown, including killing his family so he wouldn’t have any sons eyeing the throne. At the news of a potential royal rival, Herod furthers his reign of terror by attacking children, and under such political tyranny, Mary and Joseph flee Palestine with their newborn, effectively becoming Middle-Eastern refugees in Northern Africa.
Our African brothers and sisters do not take this turn of events lightly. They realize what has happened, and many of them, who have experienced refugee status at some point, nod in comprehension at the plight of our Lord in his first weeks on Earth. As Paul Claudel says of Mary, “notice how she ushers God into the world: in secret, as an intruder, under suspicion.” The churches in Kenya recognize that when Jesus became a political refugee, when his family needed to find shelter, it was to Africa that they turned. Africa has been the home of political refugees for thousands of years, and we count our Savior among them. Just as angels are heralding good news for the poor, the holy family flees to a foreign land in order to find safety and comfort.
Mary and Joseph find themselves in Egypt, the great nation that has a troubled history with Israel. They are Hebrews in a land that once enslaved Hebrews, as political refugees no less, and for Jesus’ first few years, he can be found here, in exile, back where the story of Israel began. It is at this point in the story that our Kenyan brothers and sisters like to point out that Jesus learned about African culture and customs while sojourning in Egypt, and that Jesus holds a special place in his heart for the poor and oppressed, partly because he saw firsthand the ways that exiles and refugees are treated.
It is a sobering thought to consider the Nativity in light of fleeing refugees, mad politicians, and terrorism. Yet each time we pause to reflect on and celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are reminded of the heart of God, who calls us not only to share the good news with the widow, the orphan, and the least of these, but to actively care for them. The Nativity is a blatant reminder that we are commanded to care for the refugees and the outcasts, to share with them our land and our foods, for our Lord was once in need of both. This Christmas season, may we look for and find the strangers in our land, in order to help them as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.