The Right Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham has released his Christmas message today Monday 21st December. Based on the Christmas story, it explores being a refugee in a strange / unfamiliar place as a backdrop to the very real refugee situation we see this Christmas. Understanding other people’s situations, Bishop Paul reminds us of the very real story of Jesus’ birth.
CHRISTMAS MESSAGES 2015
Shouting, cheering and great clamour celebrated our arrival. The whole community had come out to welcome us and proudly show off all that they had achieved. It was impressive; homes built, small gardens created and most powerful of all the stories of how families from different backgrounds had integrated together. This was refugee response Burundi style. 70,000 returnees in a small area had been successfully welcomed by some of the poorest people in the world. Sadly vast numbers of the whole community have had to flee back into Tanzania with the current unrest. Many welcomers have become refugees themselves.
Refugees exist all over the globe. The reasons why people become refugees are many; some are purely economic migrants, seeking what they perceive will be a better life in a new land; some are forced by military or political force; some are suffering the effects of climate change and are seeking new fertile land for their animals and crops; some are fleeing persecution, terror and violence. In our minds they tend to be all lumped together, when our response needs to be different for each. Naturally in many cases we cannot easily divide people into simple categories as the reasons may be a complex mix.
But if I had fled from war with my family because I had seen members of my community killed, and I feared we might be next, and had somehow scraped together the money to help us buy a passage on a small boat and survived the precarious journey how would I hope to be treated?
The story of Jesus’ birth has two parts that speak into a world of refugees. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary was an enforced one. The occupying Roman power required registration in the place of birth, not residence. Joseph and Mary by choice would have had their God given child in Nazareth surrounded by the family and community. Instead they are in temporary accommodation that lacked facilities. Yet this is the place where God is found.
Later because of the threat of extreme violence, death, from King Herod himself, they have to flee into Egypt. They become refugees. Even when it is safe to return they recognise that Nazareth will be safer than Bethlehem. The early years of Jesus are shaped by political force and violence.
It is not sweet and nice like the wonderful fun we have with nativity plays – don’t misunderstand me I enjoy them as much as anyone. The good news is that Jesus’ birth and life connects with our difficult, dirty, desperate world as well as its joyous side.
I like to think that if I had been in Bethlehem I would have offered the babe in the womb a welcome; that if I had been a shepherd I would have run into Bethlehem and rejoiced with Mary and Joseph. I believe one way of showing that is to make asylum seeking refugees welcome in our communities in the coming years.
May we all this Christmas find ways of expressing care to the refugees of the world. Make it a happy Christmas for them too.
[Bishop Paul has produced three Christmas message each exploring a slightly different approach to the Christmas story – all with strong resonance to the refugee situation this Christmas.]