“Flee to Egypt.” With those words echoing in his ears Joseph got up, took Jesus and Mary by night and went to Egypt. Regardless of whether this story really happened the way Matthew tells it, it’s not hard to know that it’s true. The names and faces might change but it’s a story that continues to be lived in lands throughout the world today. We’ve seen the pictures. We’ve read the news. We’ve heard and maybe even participated in the arguments over what to do about this situation. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not the first refugees and they are not the last.
What do you hear in today’s gospel, the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)? What feelings does it evoke? What images fill you mind’s eye? What prayers arise within you? What experiences does it recall from your life? What does it have to do with you and me?
I picture a little boy and his mom and dad. Violence, a tyrant ruler, an oppressive government, and the threat of death have them on the run. They have left behind more than what they have taken. I feel the parents’ fear and the knot in their stomachs. I am certain their one thought, their only priority, is to protect the child and keep him safe. I see them feeling their way through the darkness of night hoping not to be noticed. With each passing moment they are a bit further from the known and familiar, and bit closer to the unknown and unfamiliar. I hear their whispered questions. When will we get there? How much further is it? What will we find? What will it be like?
I am not talking about only Jesus and the Holy Family, I’m also talking about Alan and the Kurdi family. One child arrived safely in Egypt. The other child drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach four months ago. Both were refugees and they shared a common story.
I cannot explain why one child found refuge and the other didn’t. I don’t know. There are no good or acceptable reasons for that but I can tell you what are not the reasons. It is not because Jesus’ life mattered more, was more important, or more valuable than Alan’s. It’s not because God loves Jesus more than Alan. It’s not because Jesus is God’s eternal son and Alan was just another Syrian refugee. If we think it’s any one of those things we have missed the point of Christmas. We have denied that the Word became flesh; human flesh, flesh like Alan’s, like yours, like mine. We have forgotten today’s collect, the prayer that reminds us that in Jesus God shares our humanity so that we might share his divinity. If that prayer means anything at all it means that the depth and measure of God’s joy and thanksgiving that Jesus arrived in Egypt is equaled only by the depth and measure of God’s anger and sorrow that Alan did not reach his Egypt.
God’s heart is with the refugee. In the birth of Jesus, in the angel of the Lord who spoke to Joseph in a dream, and in the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt God has revealed himself to be aligned with the refugees of this world, not only with Alan but with you and me as well.
And if it sounds like I just named us as refugees you heard right. Those two little boys, Jesus and Alan, are the face of a refugee humanity, a humanity you and I share with them. In Alan’s face we see a modern day retelling of the flight to Egypt, and in Jesus’ face we see the spark that ignites hope, kindles the fire of love, and illumines the darkness for all refugees.
Their stories confront us with our own refugee status and bring to mind the times we have fled to Egypt. Some of you may be on that road now.
If your life has ever been disrupted and you needed a safe place to get away to; if you’ve ever known it was no longer safe or good for you to stay where you were or to stay the way you were; if you’ve ever left the known and familiar and traveled in darkness to the unknown and unfamiliar; if you’ve ever realized your life was at risk and you had to make a change; if your survival depended on crossing borders into a new and foreign land; if you’ve ever experienced these or a thousand other things like them, then you know what it’s like to be a refugee. And my guess is that we all know what that’s like.
We may not have had the same experience as Jesus and the Holy Family or Alan and the Kurdi family but we share a common story and a common status. Herod is not just a king in Israel some two thousand years ago. In every age Herod is the power, circumstances, and abuses that disrupt and seek to destroy life. Herod is that one who creates refugees. For every refugee there is a Herod, and there are all sorts of refugees and all kinds of Herods.
You see, being a refugee is not only about tyrant kings, oppressive governments, and threats of death. It’s also about a deep longing and drive for a new life and a new place in life. It’s hearing and responding to the nighttime calling of God. The refugee life is neither easy nor safe but we never go alone. We go with the God of refugees, the God who “has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19-20). We go with the promise that our Egypt has already been sanctified and prepared by the presence of “this child [who] is our spark.” This child knows the way.
Some of us are refugees from a marriage or relationship that was unhealthy, destructive, or violent. Some are refugees from the land of addiction. Some are refugees wandering through the darkness of depression, emptiness, or a life seemingly void of meaning. Some are fleeing the countries of neglect or abuse. Many of us have recognized behaviors and choices that we had to flee or situations we just had to get away from. Most of us have probably been refugees from the land of grief and sorrow.
I don’t know what your refugee story is but I’ll bet you have one. I’ll bet you have had at least one time in your life when you had to get to Egypt. Your life depended on it. You left home for a better place, a different life, a new way; and you left not really knowing where you were going or what you would find when you got there. You trusted the child to show you the way. You followed in the footsteps of the Holy Family and with each step along the way your life was the retelling of today’s gospel.
Every time I hear today’s gospel, every time I read about refugees in today’s news, every time I reflect on my own refugee status and my times in Egypt I cannot help but wonder what if. What if Egypt had closed the borders of its heart? What if the Holy Family had arrived only to find a big wall and locked doors? What if the wannabe Pharaohs had unleashed on them the dogs of fear and prejudice? What if the Egyptian people had said, “There’s no room for you here?” What story would we be telling today? Would there be any good news for the refugees of the world? For you? For me? Would the spark have been extinguished?
But that didn’t happen. Perhaps Egypt remembered. Perhaps Egypt remembered another time, another Joseph, another refugee people. Perhaps God sent the Holy Family to a land that would remember. Perhaps God was hoping and counting on Egypt to remember it had once been a place of refuge for his people, and it could be again. Oh, that we too might remember; that we too might remember the Holy Family, Alan and the Kurdi family, the refugees in the news, and our own flights to Egypt. Oh, that we might remember it all.