Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2019
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favour to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely’;
and he became their saviour
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘ A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
It’s impossible to hear Debussy’s harrowing song of wartime children at Christmas, or to read the passage from Matthew about the flight to Egypt, without thinking of the world we live in now. Ongoing conflicts and violence send refugees fleeing from places as far flung as Afghanistan, Venezuela, Yemen, Syria, China, South Sudan. People who leave their homes find themselves living in abysmal conditions. According to Time magazine, there were 14,000 migrant children in federal custody in the United States this Christmas. Sometimes separated from their family members. +CBC reported this week that in the Moria camp on Lesbos over a thousand children are there without anyone.
Reading this old story in the gospel of Matthew, we imagine the little family, usually pictured with a donkey on their long trek toward safety. And though we may have no description of it in the scripture, it seems obvious that they wouldn’t be the only ones fleeing from the violence and wrath of King Herod’s soldiers. Like families trudging north from Central America, or escaping Syria, theirs will have been a journey both absolutely personal and also communal. Joseph and Mary and the toddler Jesus would face the same challenges that confront modern refugees. Where do you stay along the way? How do you find food, or cook it? When will you be able to wash, or sleep? What can you do to keep your belongings safe? Whom do you trust?
There is increasing understanding of the traumatic effect of war and violent political chaos on the mental health of the people who are forced to flee their homes, and in particular on the children. We may sometimes have the idea that children are somehow miraculously resilient – and there certainly is resilience. There are heroes – we have met some in this congregation. But the damage of upheaval is profound. Angela Modarelli, a psychologist with Doctors Without Borders told CBC last week “We are seeing various symptoms of distress, that go from sleeping disturbance… [and] anxiety through the most severe symptoms of self-harming and detachment, isolation and withdrawal from life.”
As we heard in the song that Emily sang, a natural response of children who have lost their homes is revenge. ‘Christmas, don’t go to them ever again. No toys!’ And it’s not only children who want to shout, ‘punish them’.
We know nothing at all about the years that the child Jesus spent in Egypt. Apparently, they found safety there from the rage of Herod. And somehow, in those tender years, the things that the child saw and heard, and the sense that his parents made out of it for him, led him in a very different direction from endless retribution and vengeance.* Somehow there, in his early childhood experience, the foundation will have been laid for his extraordinary compassion. It seems that in Egypt he would have known suffering, and privation, lived as a refugee without home or future, and even so, learned to be hopeful and kind-hearted. He sometimes said he didn’t really have a place to sleep. Or want one. That you shouldn’t be too worried about where your next meal was coming from. Somehow, he learned to look at others not with fear or anger but understanding. As a grownup, he never could see suffering without being moved by it. He could not walk past a blind beggar, or ignore an abused woman, or hear of a sick child, without stopping to offer help.
This is the compassion we are invited to learn from him. And in this spirit, the American religious writer John Pavlovitz shared this reflection:
I walked around today and I looked at people: those passing me in the grocery store, driving beside me on the highway, filling my newsfeed, walking by the house. I tried to really see them, to look beneath the surface veneer they wore, to imagine the invisible burdens they might be carrying below the surface: sick children, relational collapse, financial tension, crippling depression, profound grief, crisis of faith, loss of purpose—or maybe just their own customized multitude of nagging insecurities and fears they’ve been carrying around since grade school and have never been able to shake. As I looked at all these people, I wondered what kind of specific and personal hell they might be enduring, and what it might be doing to them inside. We are seeing an epidemic of cruelty in these days, a lack of empathy that leaves people feeling more alone than ever before. So many of the grieving, struggling, fearful human beings filling up the landscape we find ourselves in today are hanging by the very thinnest of threads. They are heroically pushing back despair, enduring real and imagined terrors, warring with their external circumstances and their internal demons. They are doing the very best they can, sometimes with little help or hope, and they need those of us who live alongside them to make that best-doing a little easier. This is when we bend low to meet them where their pain lives. It is where Jesus’ feet always led him. Every person around you has their Herod—that terrifying and persistent thing that assails them, the relentless fear-bringer that will not let them rest. With a listening ear or an act of simple kindness, step into their urgency and their unrest today. Bring the hope that offers them escape and helps them see a day beyond this one—and find a way to get them to Egypt. (Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. Chalice Press. Kindle Edition.)
Mary’s child was born into a dangerous, cruel time, and learned to live with kindness and grace. The same kindness, the same grace flows now in a dangerous and cruel world. We are invited into that hope, called to respond with love. And for this we give God thanks.
* Thanks to Rev. Neil Young for this insight.
(Photo Credit: Bess Hamiti)