Last year I wrote a popular series for Our Daily Bread’s Off The Page blog, who gave me permission to reproduce it here. The Prepare Them Room series is four monologues of Bible characters, looking at Jesus’ birth through the lens of refugees and hospitality. This is the fourth and final one of the series.
Poverty changes you.
I had never known riches, but this was a new low. Stuck in Bethlehem, Joseph scrambled unsuccessfully to find work from unfriendly neighbours.
I could stand the hunger for myself, but not for my baby. I gave Jesus all I had, but as my flesh shrank and my bones grew more prominent, my milk wasn’t enough for him. Next door, my rich neighbours wiped the lamb fat from their lips, and I watched them, greedily.
I don’t think I would have stolen, but… Let’s just say it was good that the Magi came when they did.
Since the birth, I’d been living in a bubble of isolation. Thanks to Great Aunt Rachel and her gossip-mongers, there weren’t many in town who believed my story about the angel. Unsavoury men leered, called me a whore. Joseph was fiercely protective, but he was also scorned by others.
God’s chosen child was despised by those who were still praying fervently for the Messiah’s arrival. I might have enjoyed the irony if I hadn’t been so hungry. And lonely.
It was a new experience to see people turn away when I smiled. Gradually, I took their cloak of shame and wore it. I was embarrassed by my own skin. I kept my eyes down and stayed away from others. I grew smaller in every way.
Everyone needs God to visit them on a cloudy day. I thoroughly recommend it. The neighbours stared while world-famous intelligentsia paid homage to my baby, bowing down before us.
In that moment, I remembered the angel and had that same flash of awe: salvation would come to us all. The Magi had lifted my eyes. I remembered who I was before God – the highly-favoured one.
Naturally, the riches they brought also helped. Running my hand through the gold coins and treasures, I imagined an end to our troubles.
The next day, we were running for our lives.
We ran because God told us to run. No one aspires to become a refugee: the taste of humiliation is bitter. We ran, not to improve our lives, but to save them.
In the evening, we’d celebrated the coming of the Magi, feasting on good wine and meat. I was deep in contented sleep when I dreamt I was a boat, rocked from side to side by waves. I awoke to find Joseph shaking me.
“We need to go. Now.”
I would have thought he was joking if not for his wide eyes. The last time he’d had a dream like this, an angel told him to marry me: it would seem churlish to argue this was not also from God.
King Herod wanted to kill my baby. My throat closed up in panic. I thought of Simeon’s words, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” – but this was too soon, too soon, and I shut out those thoughts of Herod’s bloody intent, and kept repeating, ‘He has brought down the rulers from their thrones’, over and over again.
I muttered it nervously, as I disguised the Magi’s gifts under cloaks. In the darkness, the donkey shuffled; the coins clinked, muffled by blankets. I felt inexplicably guilty.
It felt so wrong. I knew our history: no good came of fleeing to Egypt. We were supposed to be exiting the land of idolatry and slavery, not entering it. But the God-worshipping land had become a God-murdering land, and sometimes you have to flee your spiritual home because God isn’t there anymore.
I mumbled it so much in those days that it became a prayer.
On the long journey, I was jumpy every time I heard a horse. We camped out at night in the cold, taking turns to watch, ready to move at any moment. I didn’t know whether I was more afraid of wild beasts or people.
Once we’d reached Egypt, we strained to understand their language. When I heard familiar Israelite voices, I drew nearer to the couple chatting.
My blood froze when I heard “Herod.” The babies of Bethlehem – he had murdered them. I saw it all: soldiers’ hardened faces, grown men pleading on their knees, toddlers’ confused cries, blood in the streets, Rachel weeping for her children.
My heart pounded furiously, and I began hyperventilating. I ran towards Joseph, who held me, but it was half an hour before I could tell him, through tears, what I had heard.
If anyone found out we had the child Herod was trying to kill…
We kept apart from others, didn’t talk much and hid our precious baby under my cloak. Poor little Jesus was decidedly subdued, as if he knew he had to be silent to save us. I kept hugging him. I didn’t know what else to do. We searched for a new home in a strange land.
I rapped on the next door, as I had done so many times before. There was a tiny plot of land next to this house. Perhaps we could buy it and Joseph could build us shelter. Our gold was rapidly depleting. We needed this.
An Egyptian woman, tall, dark and beautiful, answered the door. Around her feet ran three children, clamouring for attention. I uttered the only Egyptian word I knew: “please”.
She could see my desperation. Maybe she knew we were the fugitive family Herod was seeking. I waited for her to reject me, as so many had done before.
Suddenly smiling, she embraced me.
It had been a long time since I had been treated as a human, not a burden. Initially, I flinched at her touch. But she continued hugging me, and in her arms, I felt the arms of God around me. I wept. We had found a home.
As she cuddled my baby, I realised little Jesus had been despised by the religious and worshipped by outsiders.
I asked myself: was it really such a bad thing to be numbered among the outsiders, after all?
Tweetables:'God's chosen child was despised by those who were still praying fervently for the Messiah's arrival.' - @Tanya_Marlow: Click To Tweet 'We ran because God told us to run. No one aspires to become a refugee.' @Tanya_Marlow on the nativity and refugees: Click To Tweet 'Is it really such a bad thing to be numbered among the outsiders?' @Tanya_Marlow on the fight to Egypt - Jesus the Refugee: Click To Tweet 'In her arms, I felt the arms of God around me.' @Tanya_Marlow tells Mary's story on the flight to Egypt - Jesus the Refugee: Click To Tweet
Over to you:
- If you identify as an outsider, how does this comfort you?
- Think of those you wouldn’t want living in your home: can you see Jesus in them?
Find here the whole Prepare Them Room Series – a refugee and hospitality nativity in four monologues.
For further reading – memoirs about a Christian response to refugees:
– Shawn Smucker – Once We Were Strangers. Check it out here
– DL Mayfield – Assimilate or Go Home. Check it out here
Beautiful children’s book retelling the nativity through the lens of Mary and Joseph as Refugees
– Anne Booth and Sam Usher – Refuge. Check it out here
AND – If you liked this story, you’ll love Those Who Wait by Tanya Marlow – following the life of four Bible characters who wrestled with waiting. Check it out here.