“So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”—Matthew 2:14-15
Turns out that the part of the Christmas story most likely to get skipped over is my favorite part. Two verses work hard to summarize years of exile, the entire covenant narrative, and position Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy. But in a show of extreme verbal economy, the gospel writer cuts out the whole exile experience. I tried to find credible information on that period of Jesus’ life but only turned up apocryphal stories like the one about his bathwater curing leprosy.
It wasn’t until I decided to sit and visit with the holy family that I started to get a picture of what that exile might have been like.
“Mary, Mary—wake up,” Joseph says. “We have to go to Egypt.”
“It's the middle of the night, Joe. Can’t Egypt wait ’til morning?”
The holy family is wiped out from hosting three men—men worthy of being received by Herod the Great, no less. Mary is exhausted. The young couple have done their absolute best to properly feed and tend to their guests. Tradition among Palestinians in Bethlehem demands showering guests with hospitality for three full days—a far cry from hosts in Western cultures. Even in Mexico, where people take pride in being hospitable, people know the saying “After three days, guests, like fish, start to stink.”
That particular night, Mary cherished her rest, but Joseph had the trump card: “Can’t. God’s angel said ‘Leave tonight.’”
A flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo is about an hour-and-a-half long. Today we look at maps and think, “Meh—240 miles.” But Mary and Joseph were traveling on foot. The Bible says nothing of a donkey; I doubt Joseph could afford even a “beater” donkey. Besides, Joseph was 40ish, Mary was a teen, and Jesus was at most 2, so their walking capabilities varied greatly. The road ahead of them was 20 southbound miles of country paths to avoid Jerusalem, and then 220 miles along the Via Maris, a limestone road that hugged the Mediterranean coast and ended in Heliopolis, today's Cairo.
This past summer I hiked a six-hour stretch of wilderness with Christian Peacemaker Teams about 27 miles from Bethlehem, along the South Hebron hills. Plants with inch-long barbs spring from the parched land. The rocks feature head-cleaving edges; all the animals are clawed, fanged, or poisonous. Nature seems to scream, “Go away!” As I was photographing a flock of sheep, three muscular sheep dogs charged at me from a cloud of dust. I’m convinced they would have mauled me had my water bottle not fallen out of my backpack and spooked them. Now imagine the holy family with their toddler in the dark, dodging thieves, soldiers, lions, and feral dogs while carrying liquids in wineskins, solids in sackcloth, and whatever utensils they needed.
Two things happened once Jesus crossed into Egypt. First, Herod’s power did not extend to Egypt, so Jesus was out of his reach. Second, Jesus became stateless. Egypt, like Palestine, was under Roman occupation. The Roman-appointed ruler gave anyone living there their rights, which generally favored the people group the ruler identified with most. Jesus was neither Roman nor Egyptian, and most of the Jews in the country were in Alexandria. He had no claim to a nationality, no army standing behind his rights, and no relatives to offer him protection.
The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to . . . avail himself of the protection of that country.” It is not a stretch to say that the holy family had a well-founded fear of persecution and left Palestine because they could not seek protection from local authorities.
But there’s more to the word refugee, both semantically and biblically. Semantically, the word comes from Latin re meaning “back” and fugare meaning “to flee.” The root of the word means to run backward, to retreat. In a sense, if we take Matthew 2:14-15 as a reference to Hosea 11:1, which itself points to the Exodus story, then we are getting into the midrash tradition of returning to a story in order to make the connections of a covenant narrative. God is pointing here to a pattern of deliverance. Just as he called the humble slaves out of oppression from the Egyptian empire, so too Jesus, lowered by becoming human, stateless, and persecuted, becomes the firstfruits of God’s deliverance.
Jesus exemplifies the statelessness to which we are called as his people. We are all sojourners in need of deliverance from the powers and principalities of this world, but also citizens of the greater kingdom.
Exile is where I begin to sit with familiarity at the holy family’s table. I can relate. I’m a Mexican immigrant to the United States. Unlike Jesus, my family didn’t flee from certain death. My dad was invited to come and stay, so we did. But after 22 years of living here, I still feel like an exile. People ask me where I’m from, even though my accent is a mix of West Michigan and Philadelphia (“Aunt” to me sounds more like “flaunt” than “ant”). When people persist in asking, if I say I live in Grand Rapids, “No, where are you from?” I take it as a way of saying that I can’t be from here unless I’m white or African-American. Never mind that my ancestors, the Aztec and Ben zaa' people, were roaming this continent 2,400 years before the first European landed on its shores. I’m still from somewhere else.
Imagine how much more important lineage was in a time when birth determined one’s lifelong social status and tribalism was the main social structure. I can tell you: every aspect of Mary and Joseph’s life got harder once they left Palestine.
Whenever I’m in the Old City of Jerusalem, I go to the Aroma Cafe outside Jaffa Gate for an iced coffee with vanilla ice cream. For several days I’ll come in early in the morning with the same order and a smile for servers taking my orders in English, which is not their first language. Invariably it takes at least two days for me to get a single smile in return. A Jerusalem friend once told me that Israelis traveling abroad often approach someone they suspect of being a fellow Israeli Jew with a one-worded question: “Sabra?” It comes from tzabar, meaning “prickly pear.” It is a self-imposed term referring to a culturally common disposition: prickly and tough on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside.
After receiving a few genuine smiles from one of the cashiers at Aroma, I asked why my friendliness had failed at first. “We don't know you; we don't have to pretend to be friends,” she said. I don't know what Egyptians in Tanis and Heliopolis were like 2,000 years ago, but imagine a smiling Joseph asking for work at Aroma Cafe in a second language to him and them. He had no reputation, no recommendations. It would have been as hard for Joseph to find work in order to feed Mary and Jesus then as it is for refugees in our neighborhoods today. Imagine turning Jesus’ dad down for a job based only on the fact that he is a foreigner!
Then there's the issue of housing. The spring after I started third grade in Philadelphia, the pastures across the road became a luxurious housing development. I knew I’d never live there; we weren’t rich. But a wealthy Korean family who’d moved to Philly for grad school and tried to buy one of those houses outright—no loans—said they were turned down because of their ethnicity. Their presence in the neighborhood would have driven prices down. This was 1988, not 1940. Redlining today is illegal, though arguably it still happens. But imagine a Palestinian Jew seeking housing in one of the great capitals of power back then.
Let’s skip forward. Joseph is taking money from his job to an address he now calls home. On his way he decides to buy ingredients at the farmer’s market for a delicious meal called makhlubeh. This will cheer Mary up for sure. He’ll cook it himself. A typical meal in Bethlehem, the dish consists of rice, golden raisins, sliced roasted almonds, lamb, and dried goat yogurt to flavor the whole dish. All the ingredients are placed under the rice as it bakes. When it’s served, the pan is flipped over so the good stuff is on top. Joseph gets the rice with no problem. He buys nuts and raisins at the specialty stand. At the butcher’s, he’s forgotten the word for “lamb,” but he bleats, and the butcher gets it. Finally he goes to the creamery for dried yogurt. He can’t find it, and he doesn’t know how to say “yogurt” in Greek, Latin, or Egyptian. The labels are in Egyptian. He mimics milking, bleats again to show the clerk. No dice. He points to a goat being tugged on its way to the butcher, repeats the milking motion. The attendant hands him goat milk. Putting it down, he points to cheese, milk, and cream while shaking his head, but the attendant loses his patience and says something Joseph doesn’t understand. The other customers laugh. On his way home, Joseph realizes that having almost everything is still not enough to make makhlubeh. He can’t return the other ingredients.
Perhaps the most important part of living abroad is the need for friendship. I was 20 when I moved back to the U.S. from Mexico City and had to replace my entire social network. In Mexico I taught at a language institute. My coworkers and I would often go home past midnight after chatting in cafes through lunch, dinner, and coffee. I knew not to expect that level of friendship from classmates and coworkers here, but I did not expect the difficulty I had in getting people to open up. More than once I scared off a friend by mentioning something he thought was too personal, but which to me was simply trust-building. The feeling of loneliness is exaggerated after a misstep with a person with whom one wants to establish a deeper friendship.
Now imagine Mary and Joseph talking to other parents about their toddler. “Little Jesus never disobeys,” she says. “He is fascinated with Bible stories and prays all the time. Truly I tell you, we couldn’t ask for a better son.” I’m the parent of a toddler. When I ask her to come to daddy, be it for a hug or because she’s getting too close to the sidewalk, she looks at me, laughs, and runs away. Truly I tell you, the last thing I need to hear is how obedient someone else’s kid is.
The best way to describe displacement from home is to compare it to hunger pangs. If you’ve ever skipped a few meals or fasted, you get part of what I mean. Once hunger really sets in, you can’t take your mind off of the fact that you should be eating. TV might distract you—until a food commercial comes on. Trying to work just makes things worse. Living abroad—the food, the language, the customs, the people—is a constant reminder that you’re not home. After a while, you feel that lack of comfort as pangs. You can’t escape it.
Joseph and Mary knew they had to flee to Egypt, but they didn’t know how long they would be there. At the heart of the refugee experience is wondering how long deliverance will take. Palestinian Christians who left their homes in 1948, 1967, or even in the last 20 years have no legal recourse for going back to claim whatever lands and possessions they left behind. When they hunger and thirst for justice, it comes from a deeper place than piety—it comes from pain and suffering. The day before God told Joseph it was time to go back, I picture him rubbing his temples, trying to make sense of all the things he’d missed at work because of language issues, thinking “How long, Lord God, how long?”
But God is the God of returns. Eventually Herod died, and Joseph and Mary did go home. Like Joseph, like many refugees and immigrants, I trust that God will either take me back home or that he will give me that sense of belonging in a place where I'm still considered a foreigner.
For refugees, the longing goes beyond a sense of home. It’s about deliverance from oppression, about God’s justice and mercy. As Christians, we often read the Christmas story and skip over the holy family’s sojourn into Egypt.
This Christmas, I invite you to welcome the stranger at your gate. Prepare a roast and accept their makhlubeh. Practice loving your neighbors as yourself, be they new to the neighborhood or new to the country. Stretch yourself to accept the ways in which they build trust—this is important. Be open and extend the ways in which you build trust—this is just as important. Show them the hospitality of someone who owes Jesus, the refugee, a debt of gratitude for his deliverance from the oppression of sin. Do it for Jesus this Christmas.
You may find yourself hosting a child of God.
- How might understanding Jesus’ experiences as an exile contribute to our understanding of the gospel?
- The author uses his own experiences as an immigrant to highlight some themes common to exile. What are some of those themes?
- Why do you suppose we tend to skip over the verses highlighted at the beginning of this article?
- This article invites us to use our imagination as a way to “live into” the story of the holy family’s middle-of-the-night flight into Egypt. How often do we do that when we read Scripture? How can this approach enhance our interpretation of the whole gospel?
- What are some practical ways can you think of to “welcome the stranger at your gate” this Christmas season, as the author invites us to do?
About the Author
Mariano Avila works for Hope Equals. He is married to Kate Avila; their daughter is Isabel Paz.