Saturday, January 3, 2009

2 Christmas

January 4, 2009

Matthew 2.13-15,19-23

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…’”

It’s a wonderfully dramatic moment in the Gospel. Imagine how strange it must’ve seemed to simple working-class guy like Joseph. Already he has to deal with his fiancée becoming pregnant, dreams of divine beings who tell him what to do, a child (which is not his) being born under incredible circumstances. And now, this. This threat of violence. Obviously, the child’s life is in danger. Obviously, Joseph is fearful. Obviously, the future seems bleak.

Imagine how difficult it must have been. Imagine how exotic and strange Egypt must’ve seemed to a man like Joseph who lived his entire lives in Palestine. Of course, there is some reputable evidence that in Egypt there was a vital and vibrant Jewish community that Joseph must’ve been aware of and no doubt this is where Joseph and his family settled. Still, it must’ve been a difficult and devastating move for this young family.

What we also see happening is a kind of reverse Exodus. The Jews had left Egypt in grand and glorious style, led by Moses through the Red Sea and into the Wilderness. Now, we find Jesus, with his family, returning to Egypt, to the place from which the Jewish Nation fled.

All of this we not see so clearly on our first hearing of this Gospel reading. And that’s what I really enjoy about the Flight into Egypt. It seems like a random religious story on the surface, but once one starts digging into and meditating upon it, we discover layer upon layer of rich religious ground.

A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Jesus in Egypt by Paul Perry. It was an interesting book if for no other reason than that it helped me to take into account that, although we only get these few verses about Jesus and his parents being in Egypt, the fact is that Jesus spent a good part of his childhood in Egypt.

Perry, with the help of Coptic and other Orthodox Christians in Egypt, is able to even trace out the traditional route the Holy Family took as they traveled through Egypt. Although much of it is apocryphal, it is nonetheless fascinating to hear about the stories of places it was believed Jesus lived, places where the Holy Family paused on their journey, places the Coptic Christians believe are holy because of Jesus’ presence among them.

There are places one can actually visit in Egypt and find a fuller explanation of our scripture reading this morning. Places like Assiut. In the city of Assuit, there is a church named after St. Mark that is believed to be the place where the angel appeared to Joseph and told him that Herod had died and he could return to Palestine.

There is a placed called Sakha, where one can view a stone on which they believe the footprint of the child Jesus—made as the Holy Family passed through the area—can be seen.

Or Matariya, where, surprisingly, the Koran says that the Holy Family was hidden from Herod’s pursuing soldiers by spider webs.

As legendary as these stories are, I found the whole book intriguing because it opened for me a whole uncharted section of the Scriptures that I had never even considered before.

After reading Perry’s book, I find myself delighted every time we come upon this Gospel reading. It helps me to put into perspective what these poor people endured as they headed into Egypt.

Certainly, as we head into the great unknown of this new year, we find ourselves feeling somewhat like the Holy Family no doubt did as they made their way into Egypt. We know that we go forward, like them, led by God. God is calling us forward, calling us into our future, calling us to venture into the unknown, but we are also being called to do so with absolute trust in God’s mercy.

In this story, we find examples abounding. Joseph is an example to us of that wholehearted trust in God’s mercy. He heeds the voice of the angel and does what is commanded of him, no matter how frightening and uncertain these moves must have been. He does what God leads him to do and by doing so he saves this child—this child he knows isn’t his, this child who has come to him in such mysterious and amazing circumstances.

Mary too is a wonderful example. She seems, at first glance, to be kind of a peripheral character in the story. No more poetry is coming from her mouth as it did when she sang the Magnificat to God when the angel announced to her that she would be bearing the child Jesus. There are no words at all from her in this story. But what we do find is that she is living out, by her very life, the “yes” she made that angel when it was announced to her that she would bear this Child that she now holds close to her.

Mary is an example to us that, occasionally, when forces beyond our understanding begin to work, all we must do at times is simply and quietly heed God’s command. There are times for poetry and there are times when poetry just isn’t needed. When the Child was formed in her womb, how could she not sing out with beautiful poetry? Now, fleeing a despotic, puppet king who cowardly kills masses of children, she goes into her uncertain future doing the only thing she can do in that moment—she goes holding Jesus close to her.

We too should do the same as we enter into this long winter season after Christmas. As we are seeing from our weather recently, it is not going to be a pleasant balmy winter for us. There will be more bitter cold, more snow, more icy streets and roads before us before the thaw comes to us.

In our own lives, in this time of uncertain finances, in this time in which our political climate is about to change drastically (and, hopefully, improve greatly), in this time in which we step forward tentatively into the uncertain din of the future, we can do so like Mary. We can do so, holding Christ close to us, against our beating, anxious hearts. Like her, we have choices. We can go into that future, kicking and screaming, our heels dug in. Or we can go quietly and with dignity, holding our greatest hope and joy to us as we are led forward in our own personal Egypts.

The future lies ahead of us. We know that is not an easy future. It is not a future without pain and hardships and much more work to do, more miles to cover and long days and equally long nights lying before us.

But that same future contains, also, joy and fulfillment and loved ones. That future contains laughter. That future that contains the rest of this long, cold winter, also contains the spring thaw and a glorious summer.

So, like Joseph, heed the calling to rise up and go wherever God leads. Like Mary, be led into that future with quiet dignity. And like them, go with Christ. Go, with Christ held close to you. And as long as he is there with you, there is no need for fear, or despair, or anxiety. With Christ held to you, the future is more glorious than you can, in this cold, snow-filled moment, even begin to understand or appreciate.

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