4 JANUARY 2009
"This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I have called my son."'  (Matt. 2:15)
There was a time, not too long ago, when Madison Avenue had the decency to wait until we had put our Thanksgiving turkey into the oven before launching the world's "Christmas season." In those days, Christmas was deemed to begin when Santa Claus appeared on the North Pole float, making his way down Fifth Avenue in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But driven by an ever-failing economy, the advertising industry has been forced to begin Christmas as soon as our children return from their trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en. The church, of course, observes the twelve days of Christmas, to end tomorrow on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany --- so when we add it all up, we will have had more than two months of Christmas --- full of its reveling, its tree-trimming, sending and receiving cards, singing carols, going to parties, overindulging in food and drink, and participating in what has become known euphemistically as retail therapy. But at the center of our thoughts, perhaps as much for the secular-minded among us as for churchgoers, are Mary and Joseph in a stable, surrounded by kindly animals, humble shepherds and adoring Magi, with "the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay." It is a heartwarming scene, guaranteed to make sentimentalists out of even the most "Bah! Humbug" folk in our midst. Christmastime, you will agree, has been a period made up of equal measures of magic and nostalgia.
But in this morning's Gospel, Matthew provides us with a reality check. At the heart of his somber and sober tale are Herod, a maniacal king, Joseph, a terrified father, Mary, a disgraced mother, all on a desperate flight into Egypt. This was no post-holiday excursion; it was a journey in which the Holy Family were running to save their very lives. We don't usually picture the Holy Family as political refugees. But that's exactly what they were. The baby Jesus, even before he could walk, became a fugitive from the murderous jealousy of a corrupt ruler. There's nothing like starting out life as a refugee, in exile in a foreign land, to make one grow up fast.
Matthew, we should note, is portraying Jesus as the new Moses. You will remember that in the accounts of Moses' birth and infancy in Egypt in the Book of Exodus (and in Cecil B. DeMille's epic film, The Ten Commandments) the Pharaoh orders all Hebrew children under the age of two to be killed, so that the Hebrews will not be able to become more numerous or raise up leaders to rebel against their Egyptian masters. But Moses is miraculously spared when the Pharaoh's daughter finds him in the bulrushes. Moses then survives to lead the Israelites out of bondage. In his version of the Christmas story, Matthew casts King Herod as the new Pharaoh who orders the slaughter of those whom the Church honors as the Holy Innocents, to prevent one of them from becoming the new liberator of Israel. The Holy Family escapes to Egypt, ironically making a former place of slavery a place of refuge. After the death of Herod, Jesus returns to his people to lead them to a new freedom.
But there is more to this story than Matthew's literary artistry. First of all, Matthew's story is a deeply human one. Luke's deals with the supernatural --- choirs of angels, a Star in the East, a Virgin birth --- but Matthew's story is one which we can easily imagine being recast for reality TV. A mother with an out-of-wedlock child, her fiancé facing possible scandal while trying to do the right thing, an oppressive, despotic king who threatens to kill the baby and who ultimately drive the parents out of town!
In other words, Matthew spells out what Incarnation means. It is not simply a supernatural occurrence that took place in the instant when Gabriel spoke to Mary. Rather, it means that in a specific year of human history, in a particular country, m circumstances of political oppression in which a puppet king ruled on behalf of a foreign ruler, God in the form of Jesus Christ stepped into that history and became fully subject to the whole human experience. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews described it: "Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make atonement of the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those of us who are being tested."
We need not remind ourselves that humankind is still being tested. Oppressive political regimes still exist. Sudan's neighbors are providing homes for her refugees, victims of pillage and rape. Thousands of Zimbabweans, victims of political unrest, famine and now cholera, are pouring into South Africa. Yesterday's New York Times had a picture of a cherubic toddler who, thanks to having a foreign passport, was allowed to leave Gaza, a happier fate than that of more than 400 of his fellow Palestinian people, dead as a result of the aggression of their Israeli neighbors. The irony is not lost on us that the "little town of Bethlehem" lies no more still than it did at the time of Mary and Joseph, even though it is situated at the center of land called holy by the three Abrahamic faiths. Matthew's story affirms that God is present with us even in the most fearful and painful moments of our existence, and that there is no aspect of the human existence into which God cannot enter.
But all this, perhaps, has been the theological lesson of Matthew's Christmas story. There is also a practical one. The story tells us that salvation didn't come from some deus ex machina, some extraterrestrial being who swooped down with a magic wand. No, rescue came from a man who was willing to live by his faith in God's promise, a man willing to take serious risks. It was Joseph who first risks social embarrassment when the one to whom he was betrothed is found to be pregnant, marrying her anyway and claiming her child as his own. It is Joseph who listens to his dreams and takes his family to safety, leaving his own life behind. It is Joseph who listens again and returns to Palestine after the death of Herod, risking life and limb at the hands of his successor. It is Joseph who does all of this when he could have remained in the relative safety of Egypt. But he believed that God was actively working on his family's behalf.
The Flight into Egypt has been a popular subject of artists for centuries. The great Renaissance masters portrayed the Holy Family on their trek, and in some paintings you can even notice the Pyramids in the background! More recently, a Sunday School pupil, asked to depict the Flight into Egypt understandably drew an airplane with various people visible at its windows. Three were, predictably, of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but when asked to identify the fourth person, seen in the window at the front of the plane, she explained that that was Pontius the Pilot! Legends, too, admittedly apocryphal, have arisen from the story. I vaguely remember, on a visit to the Holy Land, taking a bus tour during which the guide pointed out a place called the Milk Grotto, a cave so named because it was believed that a drop of milk fell to the ground while Mary was breast-feeding Jesus, causing the whole cave to turn white! But my favorite legend is the one in which the Holy Family, Herod's army in hot pursuit, knock on the door of a peasant farmer. The farmer's wife asks them to come in, explaining that she was unable to come to the door herself because she was kneading dough. Minutes later, the soldiers arrive, and the woman hides Jesus in the dough. The soldiers look all over the house, but to no avail, and leave in a huff, after which Jesus is removed from his hiding place. From that batch of dough, the woman was able to produce an endless supply of bread of the most superior quality for her family and neighbors.
We stand at the threshold of this year of grace, two thousand and nine. I happened to be looking at the morning news on Friday when the opening bell rang on Wall Street. The newscaster said that everybody was happy to see 2008 go, and that they had hopes that the market would right itself. Others are hopeful that the new administration will put things in order. But to us who profess and call ourselves Christians, we say, "Our hope is built on nothing less/Than Jesus' blood, his righteousness." Matthew's Christmas story invites us to live in hope, trusting in a God who is with us in every experience of life. Like Mary and Joseph, we are called to trust in God even if we cannot see the end of the story. And who knows? Like the fanner's wife, we who keep Jesus close to us may be able to share him with others.
Let us pray:
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In ev'ry high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
Lift Every Voice and Sing, II, No. 99