Though Christmas comes with tidings of comfort and joy, it also comes with tidings of discomfort and trouble, where love finds its deepest measure not at home with family and friends, but out on the open road on your way to who knows where.
It’s how St. Matthew tells it anyway, recalling the holy family’s flight into Egypt, a story told against the urgent backdrop of another story: the story of the massacre of innocents, a story recalling not the one child who survived but the many who didn’t. It’s an abysmal world St. Matthew dares to hold onto lest we decorate our understanding of Christmas with too many lights: a story from hell set firmly within the nativity narrative itself.
According to the late 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 promises 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.
By way of a dream that came to him unguarded and asleep, St. Joseph got up and took the child and his mother into Egypt as if tracking with the life of Moses. Joseph did this because it wasn’t safe to go home, and because God mysteriously called his son into exile. Though biblical scholars mostly doubt the historicity of this story, what I notice in it is how it lands the holy family in a place where nothing made sense to them.
Their landing in Egypt exiled them from the families and communities they loved, from the land and streets they knew. And I’m guessing this aspect of their story caught my attention because that’s how many of you have felt this last year: at home, yes — yet exiled from the familiar, and forced to learn new ways of adapting to a new and difficult reality.
Young parents especially have felt exiled from familiar networks of support, many working from home surrounded by children learning at home, everyone trying to live and move and have their being in a world upended. No, it hasn’t been a massacre of innocence. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m only suggesting there is resonant strength to be found in this story of exile, of use at all times and in all places.
For one thing: it’s worth imagining how the Savior we follow was formed by the instability of exile, by watching his parents struggle to speak a new language in the very years when they were teaching him to speak their own. It’s worth imagining how Joseph and Mary adapted to the necessity of change, and how they leaned into the hope of an uncertain future in order to foster the life and well-being of their child.
Jesus clearly wasn’t formed for or by a perfect world. He was born into a world riddled with fear and inhumanity. Yet also graced with love. And in that ancient world, so like our own, his parents labored to protect him, as parents still do the world over, especially parents sent out on the open road in search of safety and refuge.
Tradition names blessed Joseph the Guardian of the Incarnation, a phrase I love that credits the labor of his care. Very likely, those years of exile formed Joseph and Mary as parents able to trust God, not by denying reality but by standing within it and doing their best to tend the fullest flourishing of their child right there, in exile.
I’d like to close with words from Margaret Minis. Some of you may know her. She’s a writer and a member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Isle of Hope, and as I reflected on this story of exile over the weekend, I returned to words in a book she wrote called I Don’t Mind Suffering As Long As It Doesn’t Hurt. 
She writes, “I think God is perhaps best able to reach us and draw us close in our weakness, our pain, our dreams – the areas where our defenses are down.” In exile, for instance, or in dreams that call us into exile.
Drawing on her own experience, Margaret goes on to say, “For many years, I was haunted by the dream of an abyss and the terror of falling into vast space and being lost.” But then one day, she writes, “it hit me: God is the abyss – the unknowable, the uncontrollable. God is not the sweet pictures on the walls in Sunday school. Not something safe and secure and containable, to be taken out of a box when needed.”
God, she writes, is the Creator, “the creator of me and you and all that terrifying mystery of being human.” And then making a gospel turn, she goes on to say, and “if God is the abyss, then it‘s all right to fall.”
And I would add, alright to go down into Egypt or fall into anything, even failure or pandemic or despair because, as Margaret puts it, when you fall, you “fall into love.”
We’ll always lose our notions of a perfect world, but never the gift of God’s love.
Love will always be there to meet you, welcome or not, because God is with you, which is to say, the love of God is felt at home, wherever you feel safe and known and loved; and abides also on the open road when you’re lost or alone, because God is there even when you cannot feel his presence.
- Margaret D. Minis, I Don’t Mind Suffering As Long As It Doesn’t Hurt (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995) pp. 29-30. (re: all quotations referencing this work).