One of the earliest roles of God in human flesh is that of refugee

Peter Seal, 29 December 2019

Isaiah 63: 7–9; Matthew 2: 13–23

I hope recent days have brought you happy times and some unexpected joy.

Every year brings its challenges but I sense that the political shenanigans of recent months, especially, have taken their toll on us all, at quite a profound level. This Christmas it’s been so important to hear again the eternal messages of peace, hope, love and joy which our celebration of the birth of Christ enables us to proclaim.

As always, this past year has been especially tough for some among our church community. I think of three families in particular, who will be relieved when the year finally comes to a close. I won’t actually use the foul word, but one of them described how they had managed to find some ‘glitter on the …’.

In today’s gospel we meet Mary and Joseph as very real human beings with whom we can sympathise; in some way, identify with; and admire.

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.

We will never know the identity of the angel. Perhaps it was truly a divine messenger. Sometimes we find ourselves speaking of, or hearing about, angels. More often than not, they come in human form; someone will say, ‘She was like an angel to me!’ This is a testimony of God’s loving grace. Perhaps today’s ‘angel’ came in the form of a courageous friend who stole through the village streets in Bethlehem and crept to the bedside of the sleeping Joseph to warn him. Perhaps it was one of the servants working in the Herodium – that volcano-like structure nearby – to which Herod had summoned the wise men?

What we know for sure is that, given the unpredictable and vicious monster that Herod had become, this unknown friend almost certainly risked his life. He did this so that his friend Joseph and his family would have a chance to escape.

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night.

But it wasn’t quite that simple; which direction were they going to head in? The Herodium was only a few miles to the east. It would have been fatal to go that way. Neither could they head north, because pursuers might expect them to go to Galilee. (This feels scary.) There was only one other choice – west to the coast, then south to the caravan route, the way of the sea, along the north edge of the desert and into the endless streets of the port city of Alexandria, where there lived about a million Jews. There they would be safe.

They went to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.

We can imagine them moving across the desert, sometimes looking back for any sign of pursuit, aware of dangers all around them. They, the holy family, were poor, vulnerable, homeless. As we picture them in this way, we also picture innumerable faces of our own day: fleeing from possible death, herded into teeming camps – hungry, homeless, dying. One of the earliest roles of God in human flesh is that of refugee.

Herod killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.

This is a truly terrible, haunting line of Scripture. Rachel’s ‘weeping for her children’ is a cry that echoes down the ages, and still fills our ears. This terrible grief is always the result of Herod’s kind of way in the world.

Herod’s whole identity is bound up with his need for power. He trusts no-one but himself to give him what he wants. And so he kills, madly and in vain, to try and get security for himself.

Jesus’ baby life has been saved, but there’s been great cost to others. Far away in the future, the one who has been saved will be hailed by innumerable choirs as being a joy to the world. But like all human joy, it has been won at great cost. For some, the cost is life itself. And there will be a day when this child, now safe in Egypt, will offer the world new life at the cost of his own life.

Jesus’ baby life has been saved, but there’s been great cost to others. And there will be a day when this child will offer the world new life at the cost of his own life.

Time goes by. Another angel appears in today’s reading. Again, nameless. A divine messenger; or perhaps a friend in the endless caravans going and coming along the highway they themselves had crossed? Who knows? But the message came, that it was safe to think of going home; Herod had died.

There’s a hint that Joseph was undecided where to settle. In both Nazareth and Bethlehem there were friends. But one look at who was now ruling the south – Herod’s son Archelaus – and Joseph heads back to Galilee. Years later someone remembers a long-ago voice in the scrolls saying, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’.

Today’s Christmas gospel speaks of both the vulnerability and the resilience of a family. We can fully identify with the feelings of these two adults – their fear for the child, their sense of helplessness in the face of powerful forces, their bone-weariness, their dogged determination to keep going and survive.

To engage with today’s gospel story in this way is to remove both Mary and Joseph from the unreal world of stained glass and Bible text, in which they can become imprisoned. Today we meet them as human beings with whom we can sympathise; in some way, identify with; and indeed admire.

The writer Michael Morpurgo has been talking about his Christmas this year. He described his recent treatment for cancer, and how the medical staff who looked after him were marvellous. ‘They all looked’, he said, ‘between 12 and 15 years old’.

He writes, ‘They were professional, funny and caring all at the same time. They helped me to believe that, whatever is going on politically, at grass-roots level this country is full of really good people.’

He then went on to describe his best hope for 2020: ‘I’d like us all, the world over, to think again. If you look at what’s happening in this country, in the US, in China, we are on a perilous track. We need to recover the best of ourselves – because there’s so much good about us. We must’, he says, ‘make the world a better place’; concluding, ‘and I believe we can’.

So, my friends in Christ: here’s to a New Year together as a church community. Together we go on seeking and celebrating all that is good and beautiful and true – in ourselves, in one another and in myriad other folk.