Christmas as a Refugee | A New Look at the Christmas Story
When we hear the Christmas story, the part about Jesus’ being a refugee is often glossed over. In the west, that little detail threatens to get in the way of our silent nights, happy manger scenes with cuddly barn animals, and a brightly twinkling star. But Jesus’ being born into a refugee crisis—one His birth in some ways caused—reveals God’s love for refugees, that He would send His only Son to live His first years on earth as one. Jesus understands what being a refugee means.
Jesus: a Refugee Child
In the Bible, Matthew tells the story. The wise men had just visited, bringing their gifts to the infant King. But on the way there, they’d told King Herod of the King they were going to see. Fearing a threat to his rule, Herod decrees that all boys in Bethlehem under age two be killed, a sweeping massacre to make sure Jesus wouldn’t survive. But God had other plans.
“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he 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 2:13-15 NIV).
This passage shares some universal truths about the refugee crisis—the one Jesus experienced as a child, and the one the world faces now:
- No one knows how long a refugee will be a refugee. (“Stay there until I tell you,” the angel says.)
- Refugees often flee for their lives; death is the risk of staying. (“Herod is going…to kill him.”)
- When a refugee leaves their home country, there are Kingdom implications.
On this last point I want to focus because it’s a point that encourages believers, at Christmas and all times, to partner with God in His Kingdom purposes.
God’s Heart For Refugees
At the end of the passage above, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea (see Hosea 11:1), showing how God’s heart for refugees—from the Old Testament to the time of Jesus, and I would say even till now—is for their freedom and restoration.
For hundreds of years, the Old Testament Jews experienced brutal enslavement in Egypt, a land not their own. In seeking refuge in Egypt, did Mary and Joseph feel they’d found a place of freedom, where their son’s life would be safe, or did it painfully remind them of their ancestors’ captivity?
Last year, I spent the Christmas season in a refugee camp in Greece as part of my DTS outreach with YWAM Redding. When I first saw the camp where my team would be serving—a Greek prison compound with barbed wire fences converted to house the thousands of refugees flooding the island of Lesvos—I’d asked a similar question. Is this what these refugees had in mind when they chose to leave their homes for the promise of freedom?
Mary and Joseph would have traveled roughly 430 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt to save their son Jesus’ life. A refugee family traveling to Europe from the Middle East today will travel two to three times that distance, paying thousands of dollars for transport, often risking their lives in overcrowded boats that capsize on the rough waters surrounding Greece.
In the camp where we served, there were 44 different nations represented, and at any given time there were about 3,000 people staying in the camp of just a few square miles. This year, that number has nearly doubled. Lesvos, being the closest Greek isle to the Middle East, is assumed to be an easy entryway into Europe. But in reality, with so many refugees arriving to the shores each day, once on the island, it can often be a long process to leave. Perhaps they’re safer there than they’d been in war-torn countries, but many we spoke with felt stuck in the camp, the hope they’d held in coming to Europe long since gone.
A Season of Waiting
My team served in the camp for only two short weeks around Christmas time—a blink of an eye compared with the nine months or more some refugees will spend within the camp. Waiting for immigration interviews, waiting for approvals, waiting… until someone might tell them they aren’t welcome and must go back.
Our main role in the camp was to work as gate security for several areas where single women, children, and families are housed. With my team, I’d open gates into these areas for residents, verifying IDs, letting in those who should be there and keeping out those who shouldn’t. I passed out UN-rationed meals, second-hand clothes and shoes, razors, and soap. And I spent a lot of time waiting for 8-hour shifts in the freezing cold to end… for God to do something during this time that would make it feel worthwhile.
Christmas in a Refugee Camp
Christmas in a refugee camp looked very different from what I was used to. Decking the halls looked something like Christmas lights strung along a short section of chain link fence, a few Christmas ornaments hung haphazardly on a dead olive tree. Eggnog was replaced with chai tea, generously brewed for us by camp residents who were eager to show us their hospitality. Instead of chestnuts roasting on open fires, we ate peanuts the refugees shared from their rations. We defrosted our hands over roaring fires of trash, wrapped in scratchy wool blankets our new friends gave to keep us warm.
Most surprising of all, serving in a refugee camp during the Christmas season provided special opportunities to share the gospel. Opportunities I’m not sure we otherwise would have had.
During one particularly cold overnight shift at the gate, my teammate and I met a sixteen year old from North Africa. He had come to the camp alone… no family. He didn’t mention whether they were still alive.
Despite the cold, the teen spent several hours visiting with us, curious about why we’d come to the camp and what America is like. “Well, we love God, and we know God loves us,” we shared. “And because God loves us, we want to share His love with you and with other people here.” The teen nodded his head and smiled. Sometimes the language barriers we faced in the camp limited how much we could say, or how much could be said in reply to us. But the young man lingered.
With Christmas just a few days away, homesickness and nostalgia for traditions I was missing were thoughts heavy on my mind. During the lengthy shifts, especially the ones overnight, we welcomed anything to distract from the freezing, sleepless hours. So my teammates and I would often talk about Christmas. We’d share our traditions, our favorite Christmas songs, one night, my teammate streamed “A Charlie Brown Christmas Album” softly from his phone. The plunk of Schroeder’s piano notes mingled with snores emanating from tents and the occasional word of Arabic, Dari, Farsi or some other beautifully different language floating through the air.
But as this North African teen bounced from foot to foot to stay warm, God was giving us an opportunity. “Would you like to hear a Christmas carol?” we asked him. He nodded his head, teeth chattering in the cold.
“Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations, rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King…”
We couldn’t remember the verses that came next, but that was enough. We’d just declared the gospel in a refugee camp! We’d been made very aware of the rules in this government-run camp: no passing out religious materials, no preaching… But no one said we couldn’t sing.
The song opened the door for us to share with the young man about who Jesus is. The teen had never heard that Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth. He listened eagerly as my teammate shared parts of the Christmas story.
The teen asked to hear “more music from America,” so we showed him worship videos of a church service from Bethel Church in Redding. Over successive shifts leading up to Christmas, the Lord provided many more encounters for our team with this young man, each time allowing us to share more of Jesus’ story and love for him.
The World’s View vs. God’s View
The world calls this the refugee crisis. Seeing a glimpse of their suffering, hearing the horror stories of what they’d experienced before arriving in the camps… it certainly seems like this name would be right. But in two weeks the Lord showed us that He sees things differently. He calls it the refugee blessing. Only He can work if for good, and I believe and pray that is what He is doing.
As they seek refuge, thousands of people who have never been able to hear the gospel in their home countries are now arriving at our door, free to hear the good news we have the privilege of sharing!
Strangers on Earth
Jesus is well acquainted with being displaced from His home—from Bethlehem to Egypt, from Heaven to earth. As his followers, we too are called “strangers on the earth” (Psalm 119:19). Yet, Jesus eventually returns home, and He leaves us with the promise that He is taking those displaced home with Him.
In John 14, Jesus comforts His disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled… My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:1-4 NIV).
Jesus promises permanence to a world of weary wanderers. He goes to prepare “rooms”—not tents, not tarps. As a refugee, Jesus understands the longing of refugees, the longing of all “strangers on the earth” for home. And that’s where He will bring us—every tribe, tongue, and nation. But first we have the opportunity to invite our fellow strangers home.