A holy refugee family
Christmas time brings a wealth of liturgical feasts, but one feast suffers somewhat from the eminence of Christmas: the Holy Family. This year it comes the day after Christmas—kind of like an afterthought of the great holiday. Preachers will speak about the wonderful example of love among the Holy Family and urge congregations to enhance family ties. But there always seems a sense of exhaustion on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year's.
I have, of late, been reminding congregations of the real world of the Holy Family as we find it in Matthew and Luke. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t comfortable. It was fraught with hardship and terror. Mary, in the late stages of pregnancy, was forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem through rough country for days, only arriving to find no room in the inn. And after days, prominent visitors from the East stirred up the paranoia of Herod, and Joseph had to gather Mary and the child to flee into Egypt of all places. The gospels don’t tell us of what hardships they suffered there, but as a refugee family there was no Catholic Charities to help get them settled. The bishops' National Migration Week, from January 2-8, will also focus on migration's effect on the family.
As I celebrate the feast of the Holy Family this year, I am especially taken by the plight of our Christian brothers and sisters that are being force from their homes in the Middle East and South Asia because of Islamic extremism. This concern is also reflected in Pope Benedict’s message for the World Day of Peace. Christians of Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan particularly have been suffering active persecution in recent years.
In Iraq large numbers are migrating, either internally to the north where the Kurdish majority hold sway or leaving the country entirely. The government cannot guarantee their safety in Baghdad (see New York Times). Fifty-eight were slain in an attack of the Our Lady of Salvation Church in October.
But the danger has been there much longer—as far back as 1948, when resentment for the West's support of the new Israeli state turned Islamic extremists against most things considered “Western.” Ironically, Christians, especially the Chaldeans and Syrian Catholics, traced their roots back to the first century of Christianity and their saints and scholars rivaled those of Greek and Latin Christianity. They survived the Muslim conquest and even enjoyed relative tolerance and flourished. Now the very existence of a Christian presence in some Muslim countries worries church leaders and government officials.
These Christian refugees are joining brother and sister of their church tradition already established here in the West—many themselves refugees from previous persecutions. (For more on refugees, see Assyrians in Chicago.) They have generally done well, in part because education had always been their ticket to tolerance in Islamic lands and is now their pathway to adaptation to a new culture. But we should have no illusions. Refuge does not erase all the hurt of flight or the pains of resettlement.
This feast of the Holy Family, as we remember their flight into Egypt, we should also be mindful that many suffer the same dangers in our own times.