Jeremiah 37: 1-14
Psalm 84: 1-8
Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
She looked quite ancient, I thought, as I watched her watching us as we walked down the narrow street that would take us past where she was sitting. As we got closer I realized it wasn’t age that made her look old, but obviously a hard life. She couldn’t have been more than about 50 or so. I was sure that she would soon stretch out her hand, begging a few coins, or better still some US dollars, from one or more of us. And sure enough, just as we got within reach, out came her arm, but not to cup her hand in expectation of loose change. Rather she held out her wrist so that we could all see the tiny blue cross tattooed there. “Christian, Christian” she repeated and beamed and waved her wrist, as we filed past, acknowledging her greeting and went on our way.
The Christian Coptic population of Egypt is both ancient and proud. It dates back over 1900 years, claiming to be the product of the missionary endeavors of St. Mark the Evangelist. But as proud as they are of their ancient Christian history they are especially proud that as a people they offered hospitality to the Holy Family at a time of need. Stories abound in the Coptic tradition of fish jumping out of the Nile at the feet of Joseph, offering themselves, so that he could feed his young wife and her infant son; or palm and date trees bending low, allowing branches to be cut for shade or dates for eating. Christian sites are scattered throughout the country marking places where the Holy Family sought refuge at a time of great personal need.
Now after the Magi had left, 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, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (1)
We know this story as the Flight into Egypt but for the Coptic Church, it is part of their very DNA. They take great solace knowing that at one time the Lord himself relied on their kindness and hospitality in order to find safety, security and a future.
This story of the Flight into Egypt, as particular as it is to the Holy Family, is as ancient a story as humanity itself. It is a story that plays itself out year after year, even to our own day. It is a story of fear and oppression, of vulnerability and the abuse of power. For the Copts, and indeed most Christian communities in the Middle East, their story and the story of God overlap in this story and they see themselves not only as those who provided God with the security of a refuge, but as a people now in search of refuge and security themselves.
Today the United Nations estimates that there are over 16 million refugees living in the world. That’s twice the population of the city of New York. (2) Another 33 million live as internally displaced persons. Many of those refugees or internally displaced persons are Christians fleeing for their safety, as once did Mary and Joseph, and their infant son.
Today, as from time immemorial, the face of a refugee is frequently that of a female or a child. The UN estimates that 50% of all refugees are children under the age of 18 and 50% are female. All too often refugees wear the human, and too frequently the feminine or youthful face of war and oppression. This is as true today as it has ever been.
We know that Matthew in his Gospel portrayed Jesus as the new Moses: the one who, like the first Moses, would lead his people from the slavery of sin into freedom in the Promised Land. Matthew was trying to make a theological point about who Jesus was and is. As a way to do that, Matthew placed Jesus, like Moses, in Egypt, and he did that in a very real, very human way: by making Jesus a refugee.
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (3)
By making Jesus a refugee in Egypt, Matthew makes Jesus not only the new Moses, but he gives him an all too modern face: one we see in refugee camps in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank, Somalia, Myanmar and hundreds of other places dotted around the globe.
It’s easy for us to turn today’s Gospel into a cute story. But the crisis which propelled and expelled Mary and Joseph from their own country, is a crisis faced by many even today. Even today, even now, even at this moment somewhere in the world, hundreds if not thousands of women, children and men are being driven from their homes in search of safety, shelter and a future. It is this, and especially the latter, that Herod hoped to deprive Jesus of. Yet by finding refugee in Egypt, Matthew gives Jesus the safety of shelter, and thereby gives us all a future.
So while this story is happening somewhere else today, it is also our story as the People of God: Jesus is given shelter, and we are given a future.
It is this sense of a future, God’s future that keeps alive the hope of refugees around the world. Ban ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations warns us that while they may have lost their homes, we cannot allow refugees to lose their future. For many, especially Palestinian refugees who have lived in refugee camps since 1949 this is the very thing they are in danger of losing.
For many of the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and soon Syria and even the West Bank, the hope of a future is quickly fading. And while the Christian population of Egypt is still numerically strong, numbering between 10 and 20 million, legal, ethnic and religious persecution is having its toll on the Church in that land.
So what are we to do? What can we do? What is our responsibility?
As always, our first job is to pray. As Christians it is our joy and privilege to pray for one another. It is our joy and job to pray for one another, including the ancient churches of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Egypt. These lands are the cradle of our faith and as they opened their hearts to God in Christ nearly 2000 years ago, it is now our joy to open our hearts to them. In opening our hearts to them, we need to learn something about them and come to know them as sisters and brothers and fellow workers in Christ. By praying for them we come to know and understand them as the chosen of God who are holy and blameless before him in love. (4)
It may also be time to consider again what can be done about immigration reform. While no one wants to be forced from their homes, what can be done in this country and by this country so that yet another generation of children do not grow to adulthood as refugees living in camps?
In the face of such numbers, it seems a daunting task. How can I, or even we, make a difference? But perhaps the difference begins with us. When we see in the face of the refugee, the face of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we will become like those palm trees in Coptic tradition, bending low to offer the Christ child protection and security; we become like those fish leaping out of the river to offer him our very selves as food and sustenance.
For 2000 years the Copts have been immensely proud of their role in giving refuge to the One who came to them seeking safety, security and a future. Now perhaps it is our joy and privilege to do the same and see in the refugee, from wherever they have come, the face of the Holy Family.
- Matthew 2: 13
- Statistics come from various UN High Commissioner for Refugees web sites.
- Matthew 2: 14, 15
- Ephesians 1: 3
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