There are two strands to Holy Innocents Day, which is marked on Saturday 28 December, for us to reflect on. They are the mass killing of all baby boys under two years of age in Bethlehem on the orders of Herod the Great, and the flight of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to neighbouring Egypt to escape the ensuing slaughter and violence.
St Matthew’s Gospel is the only source in the New Testament that tells this story. It is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s decision in the book of Exodus to kill all Jewish boys at birth. In that story, Moses escapes certain death through the actions of an Egyptian princess, while in Matthew’s account Jesus and his family seek refuge in another country.
Coming as it does during the Christmas season, Holy Innocents Day is a serious reminder that among the celebrations and bonhomie, there are many whose lives have been turned upside down because of the actions of leaders and groups as they pursue power at all costs. This includes the slaughter of innocent people, young and old. And, for those still living, their way of life and ability to live safely in their home country no longer exist.
People only seek asylum and apply for refugee status when forced to by circumstance. They have to leave their country of birth and family ties in search of a nation that will accept them and where they can live in safety and have the freedom to practise their culture and faith.
The story of the Holy Innocents and the Flight into Egypt by Jesus and his family shows clearly that things can occur at any time and in any place. Right now, the greatest movement of people in the history of humankind is occurring. People are fleeing countries where there is war, political upheaval or persecution and make their way, often entirely or partially on foot, to countries where they believe they will be safe. These include Europe, North America and Australia.
Here in Australia we have been able to assist many refugees and people seeking asylum over many decades. They are now part of our community, making great contributions to society.
There are refugees and people seeking asylum still being held on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea after seven years, having been refused entry by successive Federal Governments. The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, along with other groups and agencies, has been lobbying the Federal Government to secure a more humane approach to the way in which their right to live in peace, freedom and safety is being handled.
Holy Innocents Day serves as a reminder of the fragility of our peace and way of life in an age when events can change very quickly, often leading to the violent dislocation of people from their communities and cultures.
We are not immune from these events. And, our response as Christians is important. In another part of St Matthew’s Gospel we read the words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” These words, and others like them, lie at the heart of our Christian theology of hospitality and care.
We are encouraged, through Scripture, to welcome refugees and people seeking asylum, while keeping in mind that Jesus himself was once a refugee, seeking safety in another land from violence.Jump to next article