Epiphany week is observed by Catholics in the United States as National Migration Week, intended as an opportunity for the Church to reflect on the circumstances confronting immigrants, refugees, children, and victims and survivors of human trafficking. The theme for National Migration Week 2017 draws attention to Pope Francis' call to create what he has called a culture of encounter, and in doing so to look beyond our own needs and wants to those of others around us. In the homily given at his first Pentecost as pope, Francis emphasized the importance of encounter in the Christian faith: "For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others."
We’re all familiar with countless artistic portrayals of the Holy Family. It’s safe to say there are more portraits of the Holy Family than of any royal family, let alone any ordinary family. And, of course, at this happy time of the year we have them on display in the familiar Christmas nativity scene. Such nativity scenes invite us to appreciate the circumstances of Christ’s birth, to consider the concrete reality of God becoming one of us, a human being like ourselves.
And yet, if we but read the Christmas story as told by Matthew and Luke – certainly if we do so without passing it though the filters of holiday sentimentality, or the generalized sentimentality which has increasingly come to characterize 21st-century Christianity – then what do we find? An unmarried girl is inexplicably pregnant, but her fiancé marries her anyway, based on a dream he had. She gives birth far from home, under obviously sub-standard conditions, with some animals for company and some strangers for visitors. In the ancient world – indeed for much of human history in most of the world – childbirth was a dangerous, life-threatening experience. Assuming mother and child both made it safely through that, there were further threats in the form of diseases that carried away both rich and poor. And, of course, most people were poor, and so everyone in a typical family – adults and children – lived close to the margin, often hungry or in danger of becoming so. And if you were poor – then as now - you were almost certainly also politically powerless, and that could pose problems too – as it definitely did for the Holy Family, forced to flee from the clutches of the local despot to seek asylum in a foreign land.
It should not challenge our imagination to picture the Holy Family’s situation. Our contemporary world is full of political refugees. We think of the especially tragic situations in Syria and parts of Africa and all the people those conflicts have displaced, perhaps permanently. But, right here in our own country, we also have immigrants who came here to escape political persecution or oppression or ordinary misery. That’s what Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to do, immigrating to Israel’s ancient enemy Egypt, to escape King Herod the Great’s “killing fields.”
Many families – then as now – experienced similar problems. The Incarnation wasn’t some sentimental novel. It was - and is - for real. God became one of us, part of our world, a member of a family struggling to make ends meet from crisis to crisis. Like the Holy Family, refugees and immigrants today (and particularly in the American context those who are undocumented), people forced to live at the margins of established societies are particularly vulnerable. The Church's observance of National Migration Week, while an annual event, is if anything even more appropriate and necessary in this time of political transition and turmoil.