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Christmas reminds us that Jesus was a migrant like today’s refugees, says Pope Franc …

A Syrian refugee mother puts her baby to stroller in Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, on Nov. 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Umit Bektas

VATICAN CITY (RNS) As Pope Francis officially opened this year’s Christmas Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, he said Jesus was a “migrant” who reminds us of the plight of today’s refugees.

Francis told donors who contributed both the Nativity set and an 82-foot tree that the story of Jesus’ birth echoes the “tragic reality of migrants on boats making their way toward Italy” from the Middle East and Africa today.

“The sad experience of these brothers and sisters recalls that of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth could not find a place to stay when he was born in Bethlehem,” the pope said during a brief address in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. “He was then taken to Egypt to escape threats from Herod.”

This year’s Christmas tree is an evergreen from northern Italy. The Nativity scene was donated by the government of the Mediterranean island nation of Malta and that country’s Catholic bishops.

It was produced by Maltese artist Manwel Grech and features 17 figures dressed in traditional Maltese costumes as well as a replica of a typical Maltese boat.

The pope invited those who visit this Nativity scene to rediscover its “symbolic value,” which he called “a message of fraternity, of sharing, of welcome and solidarity.”

A migrant mother with child disembarks from a MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, vessel in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Antonio Parrinello

A migrant mother with child disembarks from an MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, vessel in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Antonio Parrinello

Francis also thanked the children who decorated the tree with the support of a foundation that organizes ceramic therapy workshops in Italian hospitals for children undergoing treatment for cancer and other illnesses.

The pontiff told them that “the multicolored ornaments you have created represent the values of life, love and peace that Christ’s Christmas proposes to us anew each year.”

The pope has spoken out in support of refugees many times and said there were many stories of migration in the Bible.

“Today the current economic crisis unfortunately fosters attitudes of closure instead of welcome,” he said during a weekly audience at the Vatican in October.

“In some parts of the world walls and barriers are being built. It appears that the silent work of men and women who, in different ways, do what they can to help and assist refugees and migrants is being drowned out by the noise made by those who give voice to an instinctive egoism,” he said.

(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

23 Comments

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  • It is extremely unlikely that the pope believes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem as stated in Matthew’s gospel.

    It is widely known that the biblical story of the census etc. is a fantasy arrived at (possibly as a result of well-intended ignorance) by conflating a number of events which were unrelated, years apart and irrelevant to Nazareth.

    Assuming the pope has been accurately reported one is entitled to ask whether he is ignorant of the truth, refuses to accept the evidence or just plain lied to his followers.

  • Only one gospel writer wrote about the flight to Egypt. Extremely unlikely that someone in their circumstances could afford to travel that distance walking or on a donkey. Anyway there is no historical record of what would have been a significant massacre. The “wise men” were astrologers, condemned by Judaism. By the time they travelled from the east, Jesus and his family would be long gone from the barn. The nativity scences displayed aren’t accurate .The gospels were written in such a way so the prophecies in the OT would seem to be fulfilled.

    Yeah, Santa will be bringing me my annual lump of coal. Merry Secular Christmas!

  • Yeah you guys are missing the whole point of what Francis is saying. Whether you actually take the Virgin Birth narratives literally or not, one of the meanings of these narratives is what he is talking about. Looking after the migrants, refugees and strangers in our midst because Jesus himself was a migrant and refugee that was persecuted.

  • The common popular picture of the event is naturally compressed for artistic and commercial purposes. It is not stated that the Magi commenced their journey from the East either early or late, nor how long the “star” that guided them shone in the sky, nor that they arrived at the precise moment of Christ’s birth. The narrative in Matthew Chapter 2, and the one in Luke Chapter 2 emphasize different details, but they compliment, not contradict, one another. As for the flight to Egypt, 250 + miles would not have been unsurmountable, and it is not stated how or who they travelled with, it may well have been by caravan. Additionally, the cost may have been borne by the gold, frankincense, and myrrh provided by the Magi. And thus your argument is easily dispensed with, Merry Christmas.

  • And you are missing my point.

    There is no reason to use a fictitious event, whether or not (and there’s no evidence to support it) someone now known as Jesus was a migrant, a refugee and persecuted.

    If you need religious fiction to motivate you to be empathetic it probably isn’t going to work is it?

    The pope would make a more admirable, and possibly more potent, plea for aid to those who need it if he didn’t appear to be either ignorant (which I doubt), irrationally obstinate or a liar.

    Many Christians do take the bible stories literally, feeding that gullibility is profitable but, in this humanist’s opinion, immoral.

  • But the common, popular picture is of an event which did not happen.

    The detail of the fiction is irrelevant.

  • The “wise men” were astrologers, condemned by Judaism.

    Not really. What is condemned is reliance upon any created being (including the patterns of the heavens) at the expense of reliance upon the Creator:

    The message is clear: nature and its rules—including astrological truths—do exert an influence on our lives. It presents us with auspicious times and circumstances, and inauspicious ones; it imbues our character with certain traits and tendencies. However, one must recognize that ultimate power rests not with “nature” but with the Creator of heaven and earth.

  • The bedrock narrative which undergirds the common popular picture is quite sound in fact, and cannot be classed in the literary genre you have assigned it to.

  • Jesus (Yeshua) was never a migrant. He was a Jew from Israel. His parents took him out of Israel as a young child and then returned to his home country. He wasn’t a Palestinian. He was an Israeli. He was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. Israel at his birth was an occupied country. Israel was named Palestine by the Romans to mock the Jews. The Church dejudiazed Jesus by the 4th century but even Time magazine recognized his comeback as the Jewish Messiah in modern times. A lot of historical and political revisionism going on in the last 100 years by those who want to claim Israel for themselves who have no part in it.

  • These are definitely not two comparable situations. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem on orders from the government to participate in the government’s census in view of their levying taxes on their citizens. They would presumably return to their home after being properly counted.

    Today’s migrants and immigrants are coming from totally different circumstances. Some are refugees fleeing war and unstable circimstances in their countries. Some are economic migrants, trying to get into a more developed place–usually illegally–to better their financial circumstances. All of these are sympathetic situations to us Christians who don’t want to stand in anyone’s way of a better life, but to me this is a rather sloppy comparison. The pope should have thought this through more carefully. .

  • This is a point on which Matthew and Luke disagree. Matthew reports systemic infanticide that is reported nowhere else. And while he says Jesus’ family fled to Egypt, Luke says they went to Jerusalem to have the baby circumcised, then went home to Nazareth. The churched notion of Jesus’ birth narrative ignores this rather obvious conflict.

  • From memory and in haste

    Herod the great died around 3 BCE and the kingdom was divided amongst his three sons. (Herod was a Jew and the Roman’s client king – they let him rule and skim the pot provided that he paid them what they demanded and kept rebellion down).

    Jesus of Nazareth (assuming such a man existed) is thought to have been born between 6 and 2 BCE.

    Herod jnr was removed by the Romans in 6(?) CE because he failed to keep a lid on the local extremists and the Romans had to deploy frontier troops to put down a rebellion. As a consequence a Roman career diplomat called Quiraneus(sp?) was appointed to sort out the mess; one of the first things he did being to organise a census to find out who he could tax and for how much.

    The census followed normal Roman procedure, information gatherers were sent to each home to assess the taxable value. This took much of 7 and 8 CE.

    Jesus of Nazareth would have been 10+ by the time the census was completed.

    Herod’s two brothers remained as client kings despite their sibling’s removal.

    Nazareth was not subject to the census as it was under the control of one of Herod jnr’s brothers.

  • “Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem on orders from the government to participate in the government’s census in view of their levying taxes on their citizens. They would presumably return to their home after being properly counted.”

    It wasn’t about counting; it was about creating new taxation rolls. To do so the Romans sent their agents to find their citizens at home – the travel to Bethlehem bit would have been counter-productive.

  • As with so many marketing efforts; the “truth” varies dependant upon the target audience and what is expected to gain their approval.

  • 1 Corinthians 3:18
    Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise.

    Proverbs 3:7
    Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil.

    Isaiah 37:23
    “Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? And against whom have you raised your voice And haughtily lifted up your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel!

    Romans 12:16
    Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but enjoy the company of the lowly. Do not be conceited.

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