Christmas reflection from Central America: good news for refugees
Langham Scholar Gerardo Corpeño, a Salvadoran from Guatemala, reflects on the plight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as they fled violence in the first century, and on the hope that Jesus brings to refugees today.
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America but is also the region’s most densely populated nation. It has over 6.4 million people (48% Catholic, 35% Protestant, and 15% irreligious). El Salvador’s neighbour Guatemala lies to the south of Mexico and is the most populated Central American country.
Among Guatemala’s 17 million people, 45% are Catholic, 42% Protestant, and 11% irreligious. Following centuries of Spanish rule, decades of political and economic instability in both nations culminated in bloody civil wars that ended in 1992 for El Salvador and 1996 for Guatemala. Significant levels of poverty and crime remain in both countries.
Implications of Christ’s cross
Originally from El Salvador, Gerardo has served as a professor of theology at Central American Theological Seminary in Guatemala City for the past nine years. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD in Theology from Wheaton College in Illinois, USA. Gerardo’s research focuses on the implications of Christ’s cross for reconciliation in violent societies.
Gerardo and his wife Debora have two children: Xaris, who is thirteen years old, and Gerardo Samuel, who is eight years old. The Corpeño family’s favourite Christmas traditions include tamales (cornmeal stuffed with seasoned meat and steamed in corn husks), cohetes (fireworks), and villancicos (carols).
Read Gerardo’s Christmas reflection and his prayer requests:
It was getting darker. They were running out of time. They knew that they didn’t have any other option. They had to run away, and they had to do it now. Their situation could not be more complicated. They were young and poor, and she had just had a baby.
Now, they had to flee with the baby because their lives, and especially the baby’s life, were at risk. They were not merely migrating to pursue a better life. They were literally running for their lives. They were escaping from violence – massive and brutal violence!
This story could be the story of many poor people from El Salvador (my home country), or Guatemala (my host country), or Honduras. In 2016, 160,000 people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador were forcibly displaced – an increase of 1,000% over the past five years. Many are escaping violence from gangs or narcos (drug traffickers).
Not a nice story…
Their plight has opened a debate about whether they should be considered as a new kind of refugee. The debate is still open and is not an easy one to resolve, but the poverty and violence behind this new wave of migration are real.
No less real was the predicament of Joseph, Mary, and the new-born baby Jesus. They also were running from violence. They also had to flee to seek refuge in another country. What strikes me about the Christmas story (according to Mathew’s account) is that the first Christmas was not a quiet and nice story at all.
On the contrary, from the very beginning, on that first Christmas, the good news of salvation for humankind was jeopardised by hatred and violence. Here is the unmistakable picture of the first Christmas that Matthew gives us – a portrait that we should not sugar-coat:
When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So, he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2: 13-18
Speaks to our conflicted world
This story speaks to our conflicted world today in several ways: First, we have the good news of the incarnation. That God has become man in Jesus is good news, not apart from history, but within history. It is because God has decided to be “Emmanuel” (God with us and within our history, and not apart from us and our history) that the Christmas story can really be good news.
Second, the historical context in which God was incarnate was full of violence and death. This means that the incarnation, from the beginning, was one that confronted the powers of darkness and death, and announced good news to the poor and lowly. Herod seems to understand this very well!
Third, the incarnation and the first Christmas represent good news, especially for the poor and for those who suffer from violence. God identifies with migrants and refugees around the world today because he knows what it means to be a migrant and refugee.
Hope against hope
Fourth and finally, the hope that the Bible offers us is “a hope against all hope” (Rom. 4:18). It is not a distant and triumphalist hope that does not take into account the real suffering of people. Rather, it is a hope that emerges as a tiny light amid the darkest night of violence and death.
This is the kind of hope that can speak today to the hearts of those who suffer from poverty and violence – those who are “weeping for [their] children” as Rachel has done. Amid their crying and suffering, only the good news of Emmanuel (God with us) can offer real hope and solace.
Therefore, we can and must celebrate this Christmas by proclaiming the good news that God in Jesus (Emmanuel) has come into this world, in solidarity with those who suffer from violence, to save them from their peril. We can have hope because, thanks to the baby of the “lowly manger,” the dark and sinful powers of the world do not have the final word.
I am finishing all of my coursework this semester and have already started writing a draft of my dissertation’s first chapter.
Please pray that I would finish well as I complete my last course and write the first chapter of my dissertation. Also pray for my family’s health and especially for my son, who has been sick with a virus. Please pray for a good time during Christmas break with my family here at Wheaton.