Our gospel reading tonight begins right where the story of the three magi ends in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. If you’ll remember, the magi offered their gifts to Jesus in Bethlehem, and then, warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It’s then, in the immediate wake of that departure, St. Matthew tells us how the Holy Family also left Bethlehem: they left not to go home but to enter into exile in Egypt because an angel warned Joseph in a dream that Herod sought to destroy the newborn child Jesus.
It’s an abysmal world the Church holds onto, lest we decorate our understanding of Christmas with too many lights: a story from hell set firmly within the nativity narrative itself.
Our collect tonight is a prayer with so much heart. Its words tell us God wonderfully created us and yet more wonderfully restored our dignity: the dignity of human nature itself. This big-hearted prayer goes on to petition that same Creator, asking that we might share in the life of the one who humbled himself to become one of us.
Not everyone believes Jesus is the son of God. Not everyone believes God was born the son of Mary. Not everyone believes the Holy Family fled to Egypt in order to protect the life of God among us. But the Incarnation itself has it everyone — at all times and in all places— is changed by its gracious reach because the Incarnation of God made one of us asks us to value the dignity of human nature. And to believe in, and honor, the dignity of all people.
Tonight, we bring that big-hearted belief alongside the Holy Family in St. Matthew’s Gospel. There, we find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on the run, heading toward the hope of safety in Egypt. There, we discover that in the wake of his birth, Jesus became a refugee, dependent on the care of his parents, themselves dependent on the welcome of strangers.
By way of that turn, we’re asked to embrace the fragility of the Incarnation: how through it, God in Christ shares our vulnerability and our need for dignity, and is mysteriously caught in our own need for compassion, mercy, justice, love. This fragility is right there at the very beginning. It isn’t something waiting to reveal itself at the Cross. It’s right there at the birth.
It’s there when the magi come with their gifts, there when they head home by another way, and there when the angel comes to Joseph and tells him to “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.”
Take the child. Flee. And remain until it’s safe to go home. God is there in those words: speaking through the voice of an angel. And also there as the subject of those words: the child without voice utterly dependent on the merciful care of human hands.
Herodian powers still rifle the world today. Death-dealing powers are at work all around us, powers that imagine they can ignore or destroy human dignity. Those powers are potentially both outside in in the world around us and right here within us.
According to singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, “Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” It’s an old Jewish idea: the notion that you learn to put your whole trust in the love of God by way of exile and heartbreak because when you’re on your own, separated from kin and country, it’s all you have. And very often I’ve brought that idea alongside moments in my spiritual life when I could do nothing but take flight with Jesus.
Mind you, there is that in this story. But the deeper ground, I think, belongs to actual refugees in flight. It’s they who can tell us about that long-ago flight into Egypt. They who can speak for Joseph and Mary and the voiceless Christ caught in time.
I could tell you about the search for spiritual refuge, how one day the allegorical road under your feet takes a sudden turn toward wilderness, how the road goes missing, and how you learn to keep walking, stumbling your way through unexpected obstacles until you find yourself heading toward the hope of home by another road.
I do not minimize personal experiences. God is present and at work at all times and in all places. But today, on the second Sunday of Christmas, I believe, the Incarnation asks us to pay attention to the external geography of this particular story in order to learn something about human dignity, a dignity not defined by addresses or citizenship or borders.
God, you see, humbled himself to become one of us, landing divinity itself in search of refuge, landing divinity itself on the outside of power in need of human mercy.
What does it mean, I wonder, to believe in a god who lives among us in search of refuge?
And where would, and where does, the life of God – the goodness of God—find refuge in a world like ours, a world full of Herodian powers deaf to the cries of children?
According to the most recent reports of the United Nations, there are over 82 million people today who have been forcibly displaced by violence, political conflict, disasters, and persecutions. The majority of these people in flight are “internally displaced”: defined as “people forced to leave home who remain inside the same country.” I think here of the victims of domestic violence or the victims of catastrophic fires or hurricanes.
Of the 82 million forcibly displaced, 26 million people – 26 million men, women, and children—are what the UN defines as “refugees.” Refugees, by the UN’s definition, are those forced to leave not only home but country as well, who must seek protection in another country: who get up, take the children and flee, in the hope of finding shelter in Egypt or Europe or America or anywhere that will welcome them.
Where would, and where does, the life of God – the goodness of God—find refuge in a world like ours, a world full of Herodian powers deaf to the cries of children?
For an answer, I remember how this parish chose in 2021, to turn Columba House into a shelter for refugees in transition from Aghanistan to America. Deacon Sue has been an inspiring part of that gracious work.
For an answer, I also commend the questions: Where? How? When?
Answers might well begin with confessing how we fail to value the dignity of all human beings. But surely the best answers seek more than spiritual penance from us. They seek actual shelter for flesh and blood people.
A few days ago, Pope Francis lifted up the story of the Flight into Egypt by way of an intercessory prayer addressed to St. Joseph.
I close with that prayer: ”St. Joseph, you who experienced the suffering of those who must flee, you who were forced to flee to save the lives of those dearest to you, protect all those who flee because of war, hatred, hunger. Support them in their difficulties, strengthen them in hope, and let them find [in us] welcome and solidarity. Guide their steps and open the hearts of those who can [and will} help them. Amen.”