Seeing Jesus as a refugee in the Christmas story

Flight into Egypt by Eugène-Alexis Girardet
Flight into Egypt by Eugène-Alexis Girardet
By Josh Valley, CCC Communications intern

For many people living in Canada, Christmas is a time to celebrate the blessings of family. We gather together to enjoy the comforts of a warm home, good meals, gift giving, and the company of loved ones. Christmas is a time to remember how privileged we are as Canadian citizens; it is a story of comfort and security, celebration and joy.

Yet when we read the Christmas story in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we find a family fleeing for their lives. Nothing is comforting about that.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Mt 2:13-15).

Jesus Christ—during His infancy—became a refugee. As shocking as this may sound to some, we shouldn’t forget this often missed detail in the infancy account of Matthew.

Every year approximately 250,000 immigrants settle in Canada. Some of them are refugees. It’s easy to miss how important newcomers are to Canada, especially during Christmas when our focus is on immediate family. How can we—as the church—be better prepared to respond to people immigrating into Canada?

That’s the question one group of researchers is trying to answer. The Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration is a national research partnership. Their mission: to equip church groups across Canada to help immigrants and refugees settle and integrate into Canadian society.

When churches in Canada engage with immigrants and refugees, “they are predominantly involved with meeting the more immediate settlement needs,” says Dr. Mark Chapman, Assistant Professor of Research Methods at Tyndale Seminary. “These roles tend to be reactive, responding to needs that seem most urgent.” Dr. Chapman is also a research consultant with the Tyndale Intercultural Ministries (TIM) Centre, one of the partners of the study.

The group’s two-year study found that as Canadian communities are changing rapidly, churches can find it challenging to respond. Though there are difficulties, this also means there are opportunities for churches to make an impact among newcomer families.

“Churches have many different approaches, many different levels of involvement, and many different ideas about how immigration and refugee ministry could develop over the coming years,” says Dr. Rich Janzen, Research Director at the Centre for Community Based Research. “In comparison to the many other services offered by government and social service agencies, Canadian churches appear highly adept at filling ‘relational niches’ that are often missed in social support programs.”

One participant of the study told the researchers how much of a difference it made “to be surrounded by supportive people; especially people who are not paid to help you.” Another participant explained how being a newcomer can be a “very long walk” without relational support from people in the church.

Although Canadian churches are involved in different ways with newcomer ministry, many participants identified partnership as being one of the most important aspects of their current work, and a key area of growth for the future. Being in partnership—whether between newcomers and churches, churches with each other, or churches with government and social service organizations—means that everyone involved will need to “learn to learn from each other.”

Steve Kabetu is the Canada Director of Christian Reformed World Missions, representing the Christian Reformed Church of North America on the project. He thinks seeing Jesus as a refugee in the Christmas story can be a major motivation for the church to build long-term friendships with newcomers.

“Knowing Jesus was a refugee changes the face of the refugee for people in our congregations. Sometimes we can be afraid of those who are different than us. But when we see Jesus as a refugee, it brings down our barriers and helps us see and welcome newcomers as part of God’s family.”

This Christmas, remember that Jesus was a refugee; for when we befriend immigrants and refugees, we befriend Christ.

With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, The Role of Churches in Immigrant Settlement and Integration project is facilitated by the Centre for Community Based Research in collaboration with ten different partners including universities, Christian denominational offices and interdenominational networks. 


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