The Holy (Refugee) Family

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“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you…” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.
– Matthew 2:13-14

With just weeks before the World Meeting of Families descends upon our beloved city of Philadelphia, the gaze of the world is on a different gathering of families; those clustered in shanty towns of tents and cardboard on the borders of countries throughout Europe. Families who have been, through war or persecution, fear or destitution, forced to leave their native lands for a better place. Thousands of women, children, and men aching to safeguard and support them, these families are on the move. With these two seemingly disparate experiences of family, one a joyful celebration and the other a source of sadness and consternation, we must look to the one family that brings these two realities together.

It’s incredibly important not to overlook or even to romanticize this simple fact:The Holy Family was a refugee family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were a son, a mother, and a father on the run, right from the very beginning of their lives together. With just the cloaks on their backs and rejection and persecution in their faces, they had to turn from their native land and journey into the great unknown.

Let’s try and imagine the impact of this dream dispatched to Joseph and this news made known to Mary. “Rise and flee…” It was a call to abandon the known for the unknown, the familiar for a rattling uncertainty. And this while cradling a newborn in their arms. They might have expected a time of peace now that the Prince of Peace had come. Wouldn’t the Father allow a time of quiet growth for the Boy Who Would Be King? He had a humble beginning, granted, but couldn’t the rhythm of life now be at least a little more… regular?

Seemingly, that wasn’t in the plans of the Father’s Providence. The Holy Family, the most integrated and devoted family, the most perfect communion of hearts ever to grace the earth, would be subject to suffering and instability, right from the start. They were nomads who for several years, apparently, had no roots, no real estate, no realm to call their own. And incidentally, this nomadic existence would be resumed by Christ later in his life, when he told a would be follower “foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Matthew 8:20)


Years ago, a theology professor of mine once said a line during a lecture that burned itself into the neural and spiritual pathways of my mind and heart. It’s a line I’ve often repeated in my role as an evangelist and educator; “Everything that happened to Jesus must happen to us.”

Now depending on your own “glass half full or half empty” perspective, different moments of the life of Christ will be conjured up with the reception of that line. Some of us will first imagine the cross, others the crown. I’m certain, however, that most of us will end our meditation with a gaze on that rugged old cross. And its shadow falls across our own, the one he told us to pick up and carry, following him. But we wonder if we can drink from that bitter cup? Can we live in the raw? Can we survive in the world detached and adrift, a cluster of “unsecured” anomalies in a culture so bent on being safe, secure, and stable? If God called us out, could we too rise and flee to a land we knew not?

Here’s the deeper challenge though. In my western, first world, college educated, white, suburban living experience, this truth of “Everything that happened to Jesus must happen to us” has been swept into the metaphorical. My daily life often consists of an air-conditioned ride to an air-conditioned building, returning after a healthy portioned lunch to an air-conditioned home. I flip switches and get immediate results. I touch screens and get instant access. Yes, I say, the suffering, the rejection, the pain that Jesus tasted… It will happen to me, at some point, somehow, I suppose. But it’s amorphous, allegorical, or in the end simply unrealistic that “everything” will happen to me, isn’t it? How many times have we heard it said in homilies or pious reflections that as Americans, we may never be called to martyrdom… and we nod and say true, thank God with a sublimated sigh of relief…

We pray for the poor and speak of them often, but speak to them? What would I say?

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Photo courtesy of Lee Jeffries

Encountering the real Jesus, the refugee, the nomad, the weathered One in his sweaty, raw and vulnerable existence would be a culture shock for many of us in the West, anesthetized as we’ve been by saccharine holy cards and cleaned up Christmas crèches. It would be a culture shock as startling as the encounters happening now in Europe, on the borders of France and Germany, Austria and Hungary. Perhaps this refugee crisis is an invitation for the comfortable living securely to ponder our own fragility. Most of humanity feels the trembling quake of vulnerability every day. So many of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East have walked these shifting sands for decades. Can we who live half a world away feel their fear? Can we at least try? The stamping feet of thousands is sounding, and coming closer to our world of comfort. Will it be too close for comfort? Choices must be made. Doors opened or closed. Eyes engaged or ignored. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph…. they may be our bridge. They may be the heavenly friends who help the West feel again. This holy family can help us see again.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door… I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
– Revelation 3:20


Bill DonaghyBill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their three children.

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