It is hard to read this scripture passage in 2014.
It is hard to read in a world in which the number of political refugees has reached into unprecedented heights; in which the number of children fleeing from what might be certain death in their own countries for the United States is paralyzing the system in place for dealing with such children; and in which hostility toward immigrants, including those seeking political asylum, is also high — without coming face to face with the sobering fact: if Joseph had received the dream to leave his endangered village and take refuge in a foreign country with his family in global-political circumstances similar to our own, he would likely have been turned back at the border, told to wait it out and hope for the best in Bethlehem. As conversations concerning the problem of immigration swirl around us, all those who identify as Christians, and who thus honor the Christ at the center of our faith, would do well to contemplate the following: The baby Jesus is saved from the wrath of Herod only because he and his family are able to cross a border.
More than any other canonical Gospel author, Matthew is concerned to link the events of the Gospel to scriptural prophecy, and especially the events of the infancy narrative. Most of these links to scriptural prophecy in the first two chapters of Matthew underscore specific aspects of the Christ child himself: Isaiah 7 is invoked as indication of Jesus’ special birth from a virgin (Matthew 1:23); Herod’s priests and scribes are able to link Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem, the village from which a ruler is foretold to come (Matthew 2:6); the flight to Egypt is linked to an interpretation of Hosea as a prophecy specifically concerning Jesus (Matthew 2:15). But the exception to this Christocentric focus meets us today in prophecy concerning the slaughter of the innocents: “Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18b). Here, the Gospel reflects on something larger than the fate of the Christ child, an experience more universal, and recurring: the evil tyrant commanding his army to engage in a mass murder of children — in this case, even the murder of his own people. Our reading invokes the inconsolable sorrow of all mothers from all time and places whose children precede them in death, and especially those who die violently.
The oppressive political circumstances into which the Christ child is born continue to surface as the narrative proceeds. Joseph and Mary may have kept their infant safe from the wrath of the evil tyrant Herod, but Herod’s son Archelaus turns out to be cut of the same cloth — willing to snuff out the lives of Judeans by the thousands in order to keep the “peace.” Shortly after the death of Herod the Great, Archelaus quells protests in Jerusalem by driving in an army to subdue them. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, his troops slaughter 3,000 before the Jerusalem temple in this incursion. Archelaus proves so inept and heavy-handed that he is eventually deposed, but not before a harrowing reign of 10 years. Thus first readers of Matthew’s gospel remembering those times of terror would have sympathized with the fear of the holy family, and their decision to avoid Judea, and turn to the Galilee.
Given the stark focus of the pericope on political tyranny, senseless mass killing, and continual threat of violence, it is difficult on first glance to find a way to wrest “good news” from this story in the pulpit. Perhaps the strange detail that the Holy family finds refuge in the land of Egypt might serve as a place to begin wrestling. On the one hand, in Biblical narrative, Egypt has archetypal significance as the place of Israel’s enemy and oppressor. Egypt is the home of the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, who initiated the hundreds of years of Israelite enslavement. On the other hand, in the 20th century context of the United States, at least before the tragedy of 9/11, modern Egyptian politics were not of particular interest. The Arab world was not a center of attention, its peoples ignored and misunderstood. In the aftermath of 9/11, the fragile but hopeful events of the Arab spring, and the wars in Arab regions that continue into the 21st century, Egypt and neighboring regions appear in newspaper headlines with great frequency, and we now understand that the region can no longer be ignored. Many Christians seek a way to reach out to our brothers and sisters from Egypt and from other majority Muslim countries, and also a vocabulary to help us understand our common ties.
In such a context, perhaps the good news of today’s Gospel lection is that Egypt has always been a part of the Gospel story, with the Christ child’s safety tied to the refuge he received in that country. In the surprising and disorienting ways that God’s grace often operates, safety and well-being come to the Holy family not in a familiar setting, but in an encounter with the “other.” Refuge is extended to them from outside of conventional boundaries.
And of course, depending on congregational context, needs and concerns, one does not need to focus on Egypt here in a literal way, as the country of refuge. Egypt in this text may also be explored as metaphor for the place of unexpected welcome; as impetus for the discovery that strangers, even assumed enemies, might just become a true source of hospitality; as an instance of God working outside of any of our well-worn paths, far beyond any road we might assume to be safe for traveling.
Protective God, you sent your son Jesus into Egypt so that he might live and grow, and tell of your love for humanity. Send us wherever your will leads, so that others may know, through us, the glory of your love. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
O Morning Star, how fair and bright! ELW 308, UMH 247, NCH 158 Coventry Carol trad. English By all your saints ELW 420
Innocence, John Tavener (majorwork)