My favourite restaurant is a Vietnamese restaurant that does the best rice paper spring rolls in the world; well, maybe just in Australia, but they rock. The restaurant was started in the late ’70’s by a Vietnamese refugee who came to Australia with his family as boat people after the end of the Vietnam war. In conversations he has related the horror and anguish of that trip as he sought to give his family a new start, something he is forever grateful to Australia for. And so am I. The food is great.
Yet our country remains preoccupied with refugees, especially with those who wish to come to this country for a new start and are brought here by the so called ‘people smugglers’, ‘entrepreneurs’ who make their living by exploiting peoples’ aspirations and hope for something better, a fairly popular way of making a quick buck in the first world as well.
“Of the 11,491 people seeking asylum in Australia in the period of 2010-11, 6,316 arrived by air. This means less than half arrived by boat. In fact, asylum seekers arriving by boat make up just 2.7% of the total migrant intake into Australia yet their perceived threat to the community is greatly exaggerated, with 72% of Australians concerned about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.”(2) This year 220 boats and just over 13,500 people have arrived.(2) If these figures are to be trusted, then the increase in numbers this year still equates to less than 8% of the total migrant intake to our country.
Not only have these people been exploited by the smugglers, they have also been exploited by the political parties, lobbyists and mainstream media for a range of dubious reasons, appealing to the fear, misunderstanding and disinterest of the average Australian. The various programs used to house and process them are less than humane, tent villages on remote islands while waiting a lengthy period to be processed, are to be condemned by fair minded people.
We may at this time be marvelling at the inability of the American people to deal with the gun crisis in their country, but our phobia towards the ordinary people we call refugees is just as illogical and unnecessary.
Mary knew all about being a refugee.The moment she discovers she is pregnant she seeks refuge outside her village. She left her home and stayed away for 3 months in the home of Elizabeth in a hill town up and away from Nazareth. It wasn’t she was in mortal danger if she stayed in the village, but there would have been gossip, innuendo and a sense of fear if she did. It was safer to be some where else until the smoke cleared and Joseph had had a chance to smooth things over with the families etc. She did go back, but not straight away.
If Mary knew about being a refugee, then so did Jesus. Even before he was born, Jesus was on the move to avoid controversy and bigotry. His was no romantic conception or birth. Everything about Jesus conception and birth was clothed in the spectre of violence and rejection. Mary feared rejection and escaped to Elizabeth. Later Mary and Joseph feared that Jesus would die in Bethlehem, (they hadn’t gone home to Nazareth), under Herod’s decree which saw a number of children, possibly related to them,die needlessly. Jesus was born with loss and grief, and grew up moving in its’ shadow.
Yet when Mary meets with Elizabeth, Elizabeth (v. 41 – 45) recognises the baby Mary is carrying is the promised Messiah. It can be suggested that Luke reports this meeting so as to connect John with Jesus by suggesting that John, in Elizabeth’s womb, recognises the unborn Jesus as the Messiah. Regardless, this is the moment when both become aware of the mystical nature of the situation and develop an unbreakable bond as they give voice to the mystery within Mary.
Mary gives voice to her wonder in the words we call the Magnificat where Mary says,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
In response to Elizabeth’s acclamation of her faith, Mary announces the New covenant in her song of praise which makes clear the following:
v. 50 – the mercy of God
v.48 – has become real to
v. 51 – reverse the hierarchy of power
v. 52 – with a preference for the poor and the oppressed.
These words echo the intent of the Old Covenant found right throughout what we call the Old Testament (the texts which are a testament to the arrangement between God and his people before Jesus’ birth). Mary’s song clearly marks the point in which the old has been fulfilled, and the new is here. When, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus stands in the synagogue in Luke 4, he takes the words of Isaiah and uses words similar to those his mother had used at his conception:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)
In the eyes and wisdom of Mary and Elizabeth, the covenant is alive and well!(v. 55) God has not forgotten them, in fact, he has come to dwell among them in the form of Mary’s boy child. It is true to say that the story of Israel owes much to the spirituality and mystical wisdom of women and this is another example. In the vision and subsequent example of Jesus, he lives up to his mother’s insight and fulfils the promises made about him.
Mary speaks the truth in an incredibly difficult situation. And she returns to live out of that truth in the circumstances she found her self in. The challenge Mary gives to us is to take the words of her Song to be what they are, the full expression of the unbroken covenant between God and his people which we are to live out every day in memory of Christ, who instituted the new covenant with his body and his blood. Amen
Let us pray:
As we come to this Christmas,
let us celebrate the courage and fortitude,
Mary and women throughout the centuries have displayed.
Let us not put barriers in their way.
Let us embrace the mothers
who today are mourning the loss of their children
in tragedies such as Sandy Hook
and other forms of meaningless violence –
wars, bigotry, fear and misinformation.
Let us recognise the difficulties of being a mother
in a world where women are yet to be equal.
Let us grasp the insight of Mary
when she recognised the possibilities
her unborn child brought to the world;
and let us work to ensure that
all have the chance to live to their full potential
in our world, even here in Australia. Amen