“The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.”

Matthew 1:23

International Migrants Day – Friday, 18 December 2020

Matthew 1:18-25

The reading from Matthew is a variant on the Gospel of Luke about the virginal conception of Jesus. Matthew tells us more about Joseph but very little about Mary. Indeed, in Matthew’s version, we are not even sure that the two of them came from Nazareth. Matthew tells us nothing of the angel’s appearance to Mary; he concentrates on the person of Joseph and his relationship with Mary, his betrothed. When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant (and we can imagine his feelings at this point), he decides to divorce her informally to “spare her publicity”. An unmarried pregnant girl may not have been so unusual at this time, but she would undoubtedly have attracted attention and been the subject of much gossip at the very least. 

However, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream (something which will happen again later in his story) and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, since “she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus because he is the one to save his people Israel.” Jesus, or Yeshua, was a common name at the time and meant “Yahweh saves”. The long form of the name is Yehoshua.

We read further that when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel had told him and took Mary as his wife to his home. In time Mary gave birth to a son and they named him Jesus as the angel had commanded. In Matthew’s Gospel, there is no description of a stable, so our nativity story is mostly based on the Gospel of Luke. However, Matthew is the only one to tell us the story of the arrival of the Magi, the massacre of the innocents by King Herod, and the flight into Egypt of the holy family (Matt 2:13-18). 

All of this is significant because it tells us how fragile and vulnerable this little family was, much as millions of people are today, caught up in the swirling currents of an unstable world. Joseph, Mary and Jesus would have looked no different to any other family of the time, struggling to stay alive and safe in a dangerous world. It is therefore appropriate that today we celebrate International Migrants Day, remembering the many millions of people who move around our world, searching for peace and safety and a place where their families can live together.

Lord Jesus,

Your birth was surrounded by intrigue, political currents and human emotions of which you were not aware. Thank you for being born into our world with all its instability, unease, discomfort and injustice. You came to put this right, and you acted through fragile human beings like Joseph and Mary, who were just like us. As we celebrate Christmas, help us to remember that you too have been part of our world in all its fragility.


Tim Smith

Tim Smith is Regional Director for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Southern Africa, which covers Angola, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Shona and son Patrick.

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