Aaron White has written a Daily Advent Prayer Guide that connects the ancient nativity story with the realities of displaced people today.
Each week during Advent (December 2 – 24) I will post the daily guides; this week I have posted Thursday, December 6 – Wednesday, December 12.
Advent Day 5 (December 6): Home, but not Home
40 million people have been forced to flee their homes, but not their country (i.e. internally displaced). IAFR: Refugee Realities 2018 FAQ
Be silent for a moment and consider: what might it feel like to have an unsafe home / city / country? And what if your options to find safety were extremely limited?
This is an oft-misunderstood part of the refugee story. Internally displaced people have not crossed borders but have still been forced out of their homes. They are often in danger of the same threats that caused them to flee, still potentially subject to the same government, gangs, terrorist groups and economic conditions, but without the familiarity or security of home.
The biblical story of Israel gives us examples of this internal displacement: “Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds.” (Judges 6:2) They did not cross any borders, but they were not home and they were not safe.
At the time of Jesus’ birth Hebrew people were living in Judea, but they were not in possession of the land. They had seen a succession of conquering nations – Assyrians, Medo-Persians, Greeks and finally Romans – tromp through the land with their armies and tax collectors. Various religious and political groups had different strategies for dealing with these empires, from cooperation to separation in the desert to hiding in caves and plotting terroristic resistance.
Any hint of sedition towards the Roman Empire was met with violent and sometimes indiscriminate reprisals, including mass crucifixions. Jesus was born into a powder-keg situation, as part of a people who were in their land but not at home, not safe.
The fear, anger, resistance and faithful hope in this situation is powerfully summarized by Mary’s Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever. (Luke 1:46-55)
Read: Luke 1:67-79
Prayer: Pray the Magnificat and Zechariah’s prayer for the 40 million people in our world who have been internally displaced. Pray that God would lift them up, fill them, remember them and have mercy on them. Then ask the question: What can you do to make your home, your community, safer for those who are vulnerable?
Advent Day 6 (December 7): Unprotected
There were 25.4 million refugees in 2017, as distinguished from Internally Displaced People (40 million) and Asylum Seekers (3.1 million). “This represents an increase of 2.9 million over the past year. Refugees are people who were forced to flee their country of origin in search of safety. To receive refugee protection, they have to prove that they could not find refuge within their homeland and that the authorities in their country either could not or would not protect them.” IAFR: Refugee Realities 2018 FAQ
Be silent for a moment and consider: What if the authorities in your city, province / state or country could not or would not protect you? You may already feel that way or know people who do. What does this do to your sense of security?
People do not leave their homes or their countries for no reason. Imagine feeling the urgent need to pack up your family and whatever you can carry and leave everything else behind, with little to no expectation of ever returning home. Nobody does that unless they genuinely believe that fleeing their country is better than the alternative, that the uncertainty and danger of being a refugee in a strange land is somehow safer than staying where you are. This is often the result of a breakdown of government authority, though it can also come from authorities allowing persecution or engaging in state-sponsored terrorism.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced this. When King Herod hears that a new “King of the Jews” has been born, he knows what to do. Herod never shied away from enacting violence – even against his own family – to secure his position. And he knew the kind of trouble new-born “kings” could cause. So he gathers intel on where and when the baby was to be born, attempts to make the magi his unwitting spies, and when that fails pursues a policy of targeted infanticide to wipe out the threat.
Herod would not protect the holy family, and they could not stay where they were. So they became refugees, upon divine direction:
Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ (Matthew 2:13-15)
The idea that the Messiah flees the Promised Land to Egypt for safety is dripping with meaning. God wanted his liberated people to be different, to protect one another, to live righteously, and to be a blessing to the whole world. But they became like every other nation. And to top it off, here is King Herod doing exactly what Pharaoh had done generations before – ordering the death of infants to protect himself.
If you have a hard time imagining why anyone would flee their country to become a refugee, remember this story, and understand that it is still being played out around the world again and again.
Read: Matthew 2:1-18
Prayer: Thank the Lord that, for the sake of humanity, he did not spare his son the experience of the flight to Egypt. God knows the deepest fears of his children, because he has lived them in the flesh. Pray for the authorities that cannot protect their people, that they would be favoured with the necessary resources, assistance and competencies. Pray also for the authorities that will not protect their people, that their hearts or their positions would be changed.
Advent Day 7 (December 8): Asylum
[Worldwide] 3.1 million people had a pending claim for asylum at the end of 2017. 1.9 million new claims for asylum were lodged in 2017. An asylum‐seeker is an individual seeking international protection and whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. IAFR: Refugee Realities 2018 FAQ
Be silent for a moment and consider: Have you ever been in a position where your safety, even your permission to be in a place, is in the hands of someone else? Where they can decide to accept or reject your claim to stay? Where they might not believe that you are in danger? How do you think that would feel? What would you want to say to a person in that situation?
When Mary responded to the angel’s shocking news with the words: “Let it be to me according to your word,” she entered a world of trouble. The scandal of her unmarried pregnancy threatened both her and the new life inside her womb, and her safety is largely in the hands of Joseph, to whom she was pledged. Joseph, known as a righteous man, has a serious decision to make, with seemingly no good options.
He comes up with the best plan he can think of – a quiet divorce – to protect both Mary and his dignity. And though this is a compassionate decision, it is not God’s plan. An angel appears in a dream and tells him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)
Asylum-seekers likewise must entrust their safety and future to someone else. It is certain that many of them long for angelic intervention to help convince the authorities to believe their story, to see the danger they are in, to let them stay.
Read: Matthew 1:18-25
Prayer: Pray for discernment to hear what the Lord wants for asylum-seekers coming to your country. Then find out which, if any, organizations in your area are helping asylum-seekers (contact www.iafr.ca if you need assistance). Contact them to ask what you can do to help while asylum-seekers are awaiting the decision in their case.
Advent Day 8 (December 9): Stateless
There are 10 million “stateless persons” in the world. “Stateless persons are not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law. In other words, they do not possess the nationality of any State. Many refugees are at risk of becoming stateless.” IAFR: Refugee Realities 2018 FAQ
Be silent for a moment and consider: What would it be like to have no state? To be under no state’s protection? To have no official “nationality?”
The Bible makes such a big, and consistent, emphasis on widows, orphans and sojourners because they were in a particularly vulnerable position. They were fatherless, without protection, without the rights and privileges of someone who was part of the nation. If they were abused or taken advantage of, who would know? Who would care? Who would defend?
The Bible answers: God knows. God cares. God will defend. And what’s more, God requires his people to know, to care, to defend.
The story of Ruth is a literary masterpiece telling the surprising story of a foreign woman without protection. The narrator repeats multiple times that she is a Moabitess, not an official part of the nation of Israel.
Deuteronomy 23:3 instructs: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation,” so Ruth is officially unwelcome in Israel. But she also gave up her claim to Moab when she told Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”
Woven throughout this story is how dangerous this situation is for Ruth, economically, socially and physically. Naomi warns her to be careful, and Boaz specifically instructs his field workers to help her and not to abuse her. Near the end of the story she is rejected by a man who should have offered her protection, leaving her once again exposed to danger and ruin.
But this is not the end of the story. Boaz is faithful, and he sees the goodness, kindness and nobility of Ruth. He receives her not as a burden but as a blessing. She is faithful to Israel’s covenant, even when the Israelites were not, and through the marriage to Boaz she is brought into the full covenant blessing of the nation.
The closing sentences of the story tells us that Ruth, the Moabitess, is part of the line of King David, which also means she is a direct ancestor of Jesus. The Nativity of Jesus is incomplete without the inclusion of Ruth, a “stateless” woman.
Pray: Ask God to help you see stateless people – and all displaced and vulnerable people – not as burdens but as blessings. Pray that your nation would see the same thing.
Advent Day 9 (December 10): Children on the Move
52 percent of the world’s refugees are under 18 years old. IAFR: Refugee Realities 2018 FAQ
Be silent for a moment and consider: How do you think the refugee experience might be different for a child than for an adult?
The picture of the two year old boy lying drowned on a beach in September of 2015 galvanized the world for a moment. Abdullah and Rehanna Kurdi, along with their children Ghalib and Alan, had traveled from Syria to Turkey, and were now trusting smugglers to get them across the Mediterranean Sea in a flimsy dinghy, the only form of transport they could afford. They were ultimately trying to get to Vancouver, to a life that was safe and hopeful.
The family’s application for sponsorship had been officially denied, so this was seen as the only possible way out. The dinghy was overloaded to twice its capacity and capsized five minutes off the coast of Turkey. Rehanna, Ghalib and Alan all drowned.
Alan was certainly not the first refugee child to die on the journey, not even the only one to die that day. But the heart-rending photo of his little body sparked something in our collective conscience. “This is happening? In this day and age? To children?” Yes, and has been happening for a long time, and continues to happen.
We should remember that in the Nativity story, Mary is most likely of the age that we would consider a child, and Jesus was obviously an infant. And almost all the other children mentioned in the biblical narrative die. This is not just a sentimental story best suited for eggnog and warm family moments around the fireplace. This is a story that resonates with the fear and vulnerability that the refugee children of our world face every day.
As we remember the name of Jesus at this Advent time, let us also remember the names of Ghalib and Alan Kurdi, and let us call to mind the millions of other children who make up more than half of all the refugees in our world.
Read: Luke 1:39-43. Also consider reading The Boy on the Beach, a personal account of the tragedy by Alan and Ghalib’s aunt, Tima Kurdi. A foundation for helping other refugee children in their name can be found here.
Pray: Pray for the protection and safety of the children in your family, the children in your community and neighbourhood, and the children who right now are on the move around the world.
Advent Day 10 (December 11): Child Numbers
“As of 2017, 30 million children lived outside their country of birth. By the end of 2015, there were 17 million internally displaced children (most because of violence and conflict).”1
Be silent for a moment and consider: Were there times during your childhood when you faced serious uncertainty and the lack of security? How did it feel? Did that experience have a lasting impact on you?
Herod’s ordering of the death of male children around Bethlehem is historically called “The Massacre of the Innocents,” and it has its own special day of commemoration in the Christian calendar (December 28). There are no secular accounts of this massacre however, likely because the number of murdered children would have been quite small. The population of Bethlehem at the time was probably around 300 people, and the number of male children two years old or younger might have been anywhere from six to 20.2
This does not mean it was not a massacre. The death of 6 to 20 children – the violent death of even one child – should cause us to lament. (Recall the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school in December 2014.) So should the numbers of refugee and internally displaced children in our world today. Children bear the brunt of violence, economic scarcity, and political and social decisions over which they have no understanding or control.
Read: Matthew 2:1-18
Pray: Do a prayer walk for your local schools and child care centres. Pray for protection, safety, and thriving for the children who attend. Pray as well for the refugee and internally displaced children around the world. Pray that they might be cared for and protected and treasured.
*** Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Reubens, 1611-1612 ****
Advent Day 11 (December 12): Unaccompanied
“Unaccompanied/separated children on the move are on the rise: 300,000 applied for asylum in 2015-2016, an increase from 66,000 children recorded in 2010-2011.”3
Be silent for a moment and consider: One of the biggest fears parents have is lost children. Imagine children having to face the trials of a refugee on their own. Imagine children being forcibly separated from their parents as a result of war, terror, or government policy.
As difficult as it is for adults to face the uncertainty, threat and danger of life as a refugee, for children it can be much worse. Hundreds of thousands of children around the world have been separated from their families and are applying for asylum on their own. As a parent I can hardly imagine anything more troubling to my spirit than my children walking through these difficulties on their own.
There are numerous biblical stories which detail the plight of vulnerable children. One thinks of the story of Moses, born under a death penalty, placed in a basket and set adrift alone along a river in with the impossible hope of rescue and deliverance.
And then there is the tableau of Hagar and Ishmael, which is surely one of the most desperate scenarios in scripture. Hagar is cruelly sent out into the desert with her son, Abraham’s first boy Ishmael, because their existence threatens the inheritance of Sarah’s son, Isaac. They are given minimal resources, and when these are exhausted Hagar leaves the child under some bushes and goes far enough away so she doesn’t have to watch him die.
It is not difficult to imagine parents around the world wondering, like Moses’ mother, about the safety of their refugee children, or hoping, like Hagar, that at least they won’t have to watch their children die. And there are many more children who have been made refugees because their families succumbed to violence. They are truly alone.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael does not end in despair. God hears the cry of the child and provides water for him and his mother. God is with Ishmael as he grows, and he becomes the father of a great nation. God hears, God sees, God provides, and God accompanies. Today we can be part of the answer to many prayers if we too hear the cries, see the unaccompanied children in need, and help provide. See www.iafr.ca for more info on how you can help.
Read: Genesis 21:8-21
Pray: Pray for eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to be moved for the unaccompanied refugee children in our world today.
1 “Faith Action for Children on the Move,” Global Partners Forum, General Curia of the Society of Jesus, Oct 2018.
3 “Faith Action for Children on the Move,” Global Partners Forum, General Curia of the Society of Jesus, Oct 2018.
He suggests checking out these local resources for refugees:
- Kinbrace Refugee Housing and Support (Vancouver)
- Journey Home Community (Burnaby)
- New Hope Community Services Society (Surrey)
- Inasmuch (Abbotsford)
- Mosaic (Vancouver)
- IAFR Canada
Next Wednesday night I will post another set of Aaron’s daily Advent prayer guides, beginning with December 13.