Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84: 1-8; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
I have been reading Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, the story of a young Burundian Tutsi who fled for his life to the United States after great suffering and months of running and hiding during the genocidal holocaust that swept through Burundi and neighboring Rwanda fifteen years ago. Throughout the long months of massacre in which he lost members of his family, friends and neighbors, Deo Gratias, for that is his name, lived in the forest a hunted man, constantly on the run, starving and sick, until a friend and former classmate at medical school (and, ironically, a Hutu, the ethnic group responsible for the slaughter), saved his life by helping him get a visa and a plane ticket to the United States. Deo arrived in America virtually penniless, and without a job or the ability to speak English. He barely survived. Then a series of miraculous encounters involving a former nun, a lawyer, a childless couple and Dr. Paul Farmer turned his life around and enabled him to get a degree from Columbia, finish medical school, and embark on a project to build a free clinic in a remote area of Burundi that would not only minister to the sick but also bring peace and reconciliation to the warring ethnic factions of that region. Experiencing years of such abject tragedy could easily have embittered him, but instead it had the opposite effect. This is an amazing story of one man’s determination to work wonders against all odds, and how his personal dedication and sense of mission have inspired others and liberated them from fear and violence.
I came to this story of the Holy Family’s flight into exile in Egypt with the modern story of Deo’s escape to the United States fresh in my mind and remembered the many millions who have had to undergo similar traumatic moves to flee evil and death. According to Rudolf Otto and other biblical scholars, including, in recent years Raymond Brown, there is a good possibility that exile in Egypt may not have been a part of the infancy of Jesus, but instead, a Matthean fiction used to enhance a prophetic truth. In none of the Gospels did Jesus in his ministry allude to an early sojourn in Egypt, which is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. This is also true of the massacre of the Holy Innocents and the two stories are directly connected. Both echo the experience of Moses, the liberator and lawgiver of the Israelites. Moses had been miraculously saved from death during infancy when Pharoah slaughtered the first born male children of the Hebrews. Later it was Moses who led his people out of bondage in Egypt and served as God’s lawgiver in the Wilderness. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ infancy closely resembled the experience of Moses. He, too, would be a liberator to emerge from Egypt and he would give his people a new commandment of love.
While such theologizing may have been Matthew’s intent in including the story of the escape to Egypt, such a journey may well have taken place to save the holy family from the treachery of Herod. Egypt had long been a safe haven for Israel’s prophets fleeing evil. Furthermore, there were colonies of Jews in Egypt by this time, and, later, one of the earliest strongholds of Christianity outside Palestine. The Coptic Church and Christian monasticism owe their origin to these early Egyptian claims to a privileged position because of the tradition that the Holy Family sojourned for awhile in Egypt. There also developed from this Egyptian claim all sorts of charming folk legends. The way their journey was made easier by many miracles—they were protected by friendly dragons, reverenced by lions and tigers that wagged their tails in homage, and marvelously fed by palm trees that bent down before them. The earliest chronicle says Joseph and his family found refuge at Matariyah, a largely Jewish settlement near Cairo. Others argue for Heliopolis and Leontopolis, further south along the Nile that. According to the Gospel of Matthew the family remained in Egypt until an angel in a dream to Joseph announced the death of Herod, but since Archelaus, his evil son, now governed Judea they did not return there but made their home at Nazareth in Galilee.
We are almost at the end of the Christmas season. Has it lost its excitement and meaning for you? Do the episodes of the infancy narrative seem little more than parts of an over exposed fairy tale, cloying in sentiment, related too often to really be heard? Has it lost its spiritual impact? Let me suggest a way of praying that may revitalize the story of the birth of Jesus and give it meaning for your life. Why not take another look at Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and, in prayer, enter into their story. Imagine them a flesh and blood family and consider their situation when Jesus is born.
Start with the baby Jesus, an infant physically vulnerable and dependent on others for nurture and security. God through the mystery of the incarnation chose to enter our human world not as a full blown, powerful hero, but as a infant, totally dependent on others for his well being. How does this truth affect your image and relationship with God? Can you relate to his vulnerability and dependence? Perhaps you have to rely on the help of others to get by? Do you resent your dependence on them, your weakness that requires help? Are you grateful for the kindness of others?
Consider Mary, how confused and tired she would feel after the pain and discomfort of pregnancy, the long, harrowing journey from Galilee, the unanesthesized labor and birth of her first child in poor, makeshift surroundings. When she said yes to God she never believed it would be like this. If you are a mother remember the emotions you felt at the birth of your children. Or have you had a similar experience of confusion after saying yes to God?
Consider Joseph. What a sense of responsibility he must have felt for Mary and the baby. Was he elated by the newborn or did he fear for its safety or doubt the paternity of the child? Russian icons of the nativity of Jesus show Satan in the form of an old man filling Joseph’s ear with doubt. And then the angel warns Joseph to take his family in Egypt. What message does this aspect of the story have for us? There is more movement of the earth’s people today to find safety than at any time in its history. For them the threat of death is a constant reality. North Americans of the United States and Canada live in nations of immigrants. If we are not asylum seekers, our ancestors were and for them these countries were lands of promise. Can we deny safe haven to those who are seeking it now? Or perhaps you feel like you, personally are being threatened by evil and are in danger. Maybe you are in a relationship that is not healthy, one in which you are being abused in some way, one that enslaves you and causes you harm. Maybe you are struggling with an addiction. In this Gospel story God may be urging you to resist evil and begin a new life.
The Christmas story may take on greater meaning and import if we look to the real life struggles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Entering into the scenes through prayer means entering into the lives of fully human people, whose experiences can enable us to deepen our relationship with God, who is near us, with us and one of us.
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