This Christmas I have been contemplating the world in which we live, a world in which most of us live somewhere other than where we were born. It is a world my parents found hard to understand. They never lived more than 50 miles from where they were born. With few exceptions, neither had many of their immediate family. When their youngest son moved to England and then their granddaughter moved to Japan, they were at a loss to make sense of it. Bravely they visited both places, England several times, but only as visitors and always returning to familiar surroundings.
How different it is today. We live in a world of constant movement. Not only is the world around us changing at an incredible pace, people we know and love are on the move. Some move permanently and make a home in another land far, far away. Others seem to be always on the move, never putting their roots down and always in search of a new adventure and experience.
We are surrounded by people who have fled wars, violence and persecutions, some at the end of the Second World War, others after the Vietnam War and still others after conflicts in the Middle East going back to the end of the Second World War. Today we have people taking great risks to save their families, getting on unsafe boats at great cost and travelling in search of a welcoming land, often in vain.
Yet this movement of people is not new. The Bible tells the myths of the Patriarchs who were called out of their land in search of a promised place, of people being forcibly moved into exile and then finding their way out to continue the journey of hope and freedom. For the people of Israel sitting between great powers it was something most generations had, at some time, experienced; people coming and going in search of a better life.
It is no surprise that Jesus’ family also became refugees. Matthew tells this story to connect the coming of Jesus to the exile and exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. In the type of Moses Jesus comes both as the prophet and Saviour of the people to bring them out of the exile they find themselves in at the hand of Herod and those who supported his regime. It is of importance in his story that the one who comes as the Messiah, the Anointed, is recognised as such through the familiar motif of exile and return.
Once again we have discernment coming in the moment of deep stillness via a dream. Joseph, not Mary, takes responsibility and recognises in his dreams the warnings and escapes to Egypt, a journey full of danger and threat. He discerns when it is time to return but also recognises it is not safe in his hometown and goes to Galilee. Joseph, the man on the move, saves and protects his family, and for Matthew, fulfils the prophecies about the Anointed One.
Once upon a time, it seemed we lived in a static world. We understood that the world and all in it had been created once and that was the way it would be. We understood we grew up in a particular place and would settle down and raise our family very near that place. We understood we would die and be buried in the same graveyard as our parents and siblings. We understood that creation as an event was finished and this world was a finite entity with an end somewhere in the future. We understood we were Australians because that is where we lived and died, along with everyone else who looked like us.
Thanks to science and the theory of evolution, how this has changed. We now know we live in an ever expanding universe where creatures are becoming extinct and new ones being discovered; where our universe is just one among many and our planet, earth is no longer the centre of all that is. Change is not something we fear, but something organically central to our very existence. Most people here have a smart phone, an ipad, a smart tv, a smart car, swipe on and off a smart transport system and talk to the families on the other side of the world for free using Skype. I can use my watch just the way Dick Tracy used to in the ‘60’s comic strip. None of this existed 15 years ago.
In such a world we are being asked to make the journey with Jesus into exile and to discover the power it and the subsequent return brings to us. Instead of seeing those fleeing unsafe homelands as intruders into our world, we are being challenged to see them as the beacons of hope and freedom. Instead of seeing those who are living in exile in our countries as foreigners to be feared, we are being asked to welcome them, their faiths and cultures as they bring about renewal, diversity and vitality to our country and our religion. Instead of labelling others and consigning them to the margins we are being asked to open our heats and homes so that we all may continue to expand our vision of the world.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released a study in 2015 showing that, far from being a burden on the country, humanitarian migrants (refugees) are amongst our most successful:
…While almost two-thirds of migrant taxpayers were migrants with a Skilled visa – reporting $26 billion in Employee income – Humanitarian migrants displayed greater entrepreneurial qualities and reported a higher proportion of income from their own unincorporated businesses and this income increased sharply after five years of residency. (Emphasis added.)
This is not what we hear and see and it is not what we want to hear and see. Yet those who come into our country as refugees bring great benefits to those of us already here. In a world of movement of people seeking safety and hope we all benefit.
Joseph takes his family into exile to wait out the despotic regime of Herod. While there he cared for his family and undoubtedly provided value to the community in which he lived. On return to his home country he goes to another region and sets up home and business and becomes involved in the community life of that place. He and Mary raise a family, all of whom we can assume played a role similar to theirs.
Jesus is the exception. He becomes both spiritual and political, something I suspect he modelled on his parents too. Dreams and deep prayer became significant to his self-development and discernment of the will of God in his life. He lived out his life in a world he made his own while maintaining his deep connection with the world he left behind as God’s self expression. Many failed to see him in such a way and ultimately he was killed for being the outsider they perceived him to be.
Yet his exile is the means of our exodus, our return to the home, the heart of God, we have never left. In this time of great movement, this is the challenge for us, to open our hearts to all in exile so they can find their return in our heart. As William Ricketts, the sculptor wrote, “All of life is one”, even those we fear. Amen