What Jesus, Mary And Joseph Have In Common With Syrian Refugees

The original Christmas story has echoes of the journey thousands face today.
'Adoration of the Magi'. Mary, riding on a donkey led by Joseph, carries Jesus, wrapped in swaddling bands. All three have ha
'Adoration of the Magi'. Mary, riding on a donkey led by Joseph, carries Jesus, wrapped in swaddling bands. All three have haloes. From the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Away in a manger was really, really far away.

As we celebrate Christmas amid the biggest mass migration of people since World War II, it's worth noting how the plight of refugees fleeing turmoil in the Middle East echoes the holiday's origins.

While the story of Christmas is one of triumph -- of angels and wise men celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ -- it's also about Mary and Joseph's dangerous journey, some 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to register for a census. In a town too full to house them. With a baby who didn't exactly have his paperwork in order.

There's plenty to debate about whether Jesus, Mary and Joseph were actual refugees -- but history shows that they certainly followed an arduous path, under government rule, to a place where their child would not be welcome.

To map their route, the Orlando Sentinel reached out to James Strange, a New Testament and biblical archaeology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. According to the report, Mary and Joseph likely traveled a common route: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, west over the hills around Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. 

Christ's nativity scene depicted in Luceram, southeastern France, on Dec. 21.
Christ's nativity scene depicted in Luceram, southeastern France, on Dec. 21.

"It was a fairly grueling trip," Strange said. "In antiquity, the most we find people traveling is 20 miles a day. And this trip was very much uphill and downhill. It was not simple."

Strange notes that Mary, pregnant as she was, would have endured freezing temperatures, the constant threat of outlaws on the trade route and harsh terrain. 

When Mary finally reached Bethlehem, she and Joseph were turned away. Bethlehem was packed with "10,000 other people from the house of David," Strange said, for Caesar Augustus' census. The couple opted for a manger.

The Los Angeles Times puts it perfectly:

Luke tells us that the baby king was born in a Bethlehem stable or a cave -- a place where animals are kept -- because there was no room in a simple traveler's hostel. Unlike Augustus in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, the authentic emperor arrives unprotected, vulnerable.

And their hardships were far from over once Jesus was born. King Herod, worried that Jesus threatened his crown, had all of Bethlehem's children 2 years old and younger slaughtered. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, by foot and on a donkey, where they lived in exile for years.

What does it feel like to be forced out of your home under threat of death, travel across nations through unwelcome terrain, only to arrive at your destination feeling helpless, unprotected and vulnerable? 

Syrian refugees know, because they've made the same journey. The Huffington Post's Sophia Jones traveled with refugees, many of them Syrian, for 1,000 miles over land and sea, from Turkey to Greece and on through several other countries to Austria and Germany. 

Jones reports that hundreds of thousands of refugees have made similar journeys, risking death at the hands of outlaws or any number of environmental dangers, or imprisonment or indefinite relocation to refugee camps. (Read her story, here.)

Many of the refugees have one simple goal -- the same as Mary and Joseph had: The preservation of family.

... Nearby, a young couple from the predominantly Kurdish Syrian city of Hasakah waits to get into [volunteers] Philippa and Eric's small blue car. They clutch their toddler and a 15-day-old baby girl wearing a tiny green hat.

"Her name is Simav," the mother, Amira, says of her tiny bundled newborn. "In Kurdish, it means 'silver water.'"

With that, Simav lets out a larger-than-life wail. Just two weeks after entering the world, she's already survived the sea.

The United Nations estimates that 400,000 refugees, many of them Syrian, will have entered Europe after their dangerous journeys from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, by the end of the holiday season this year.

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