During my Christmas rest, one of my favorite things was to catch up on wonderful clergy friends, to see what they were writing, reading, and creating. We don’t get to see each other often, being spread out all over the world, but I like to stay in touch with several with whom I share a history.
My friend Penny Nash is one of the extraordinary ones. We just celebrated our eight ordination anniversary on the Feast of St. Thomas, December 19. She keeps a blog called Penelopepiscopal, where she posts photos and meditations from her daily spiritual practice. A recent one featured a story about a very eclectic nativity set. There was a 50 year-old white porcelain Blessed Mother with a black-skinned South African Joseph, with angels of assorted colors and shapes from various countries. It also had wooden block animals, with the dog bigger than the elephant standing next to it. It is a hodge podge of figurines collected over fifty years of life and pieced together with deep, deep stories. Her family collected the pieces from assorted places and events in their life, and each one holds such significance. Together, the entire scene has a beauty that only comes from the rich stories they have collected—joyful and sad—over many years of life.
I thought about Penny’s nativity scene, with the image of her as a collector of a hodge-podge nativity, when I looked at the texts for today, the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. There were actually three Gospel readings to select from: The traditional account of the Magi going to see the Holy Family (but we’re going to celebrate that next Wednesday at the Epiphany pageant), the account of a twelve year-old Jesus running away from his parents and spending three days studying with the scholars in the temple, and this account of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Three diverse stories that jumble the entire sequence so badly! We’ve just spent time reflecting on the birth of Jesus, and it’s the Ninth Day of Christmas, and we have these three eclectic texts to choose from.
But, deeper than that, I think this eclectic nativity scene connects with something far richer from today’s texts.
There is a motif, a typology, at work here, embedded within today’s readings, that seeks to teach us a crucial lesson, about how God works—about who God is.
We need to start with the prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew reading. The Jewish people had been scattered, the reality of exile shattering all they had understood about their identity. Jeremiah wrote into these circumstances, finding ways to weave threads of hope into the threadbare cloth of existence the his people faced.
Given all their strife, the prophet wrote of promise:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolation I will lead them back.
To be driven from one’s home is an experience I have never faced—yet millions face it still in our world. To be an refugee—someone either driven from or forcefully removed from any sense of safety and security—normalcy—shakes one’s identity to the core.
No wonder the plight of refugees all over the world should remind us of our own story as Christians—because it is our own story. But, we so easily become comfortable and lose sight of the call of compassion…
Jeremiah faced this stark reality firsthand, and, by attuning himself to the deep promise of God, he called the Jews to be on the lookout for hope, for that voice of God that cries out, I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
Because, you see, God is a great collector of downtrodden people. God always has been, and our own texts remind us that God has a special care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants and aliens—because God understands them.
And, more than merely understanding them, God experiences their hardships firsthand.
Who knows how long it had been until the Magi made it to the Holy Family. Our nativity scenes get them there at the same time as the shepherds, but those two stories are from two completely separate Gospel accounts. Matthew has Magi; Luke has Shepherds; John has the mystical origin of the Eternal Word; and Mark simply starts with Jesus’ baptism and forgoes any birth narrative at all. No wonder we get confused sometimes!
And, it’s easy to skip today’s Gospel account of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here they are, Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child, plucked from these lovely nativity scenes and driven into exile themselves after the Magi learn of Herod’s plan—a plan that comes frightfully to fruition with the Massacre of the Innocents. This part seems conspicuously left out of Christmas carols, yet, it is a vital part of the entire story.
Joseph receives a dream where an angel tells him to take Blessed Mary and the Christ Child into Egypt. They stayed there until Herod’s death, at which point the angel returns and tells him it’s safe to head back. But it took yet another dream to advise them to return to Nazareth. I love this piece of the story, with the three dreams of Blessed Joseph guiding his family to safety, this image of God’s constant, guiding presence.
You see, the experiences of Jeremiah and the Hebrew exiles were shared by Christ Himself. In and through the Incarnation, there is no part of human existence that does not affect God, that God does not experience firsthand—even being a refugee. To be driven from relative security into a land that had held the Hebrew people as slaves for hundreds of years—the risk that the Holy Family had to take to find safety.
Jeremiah’s words flow through time and weave into the story of Christ Himself:
Among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back.
You see, God is a great collector of forsaken things. The most oppressed, the most grief-stricken, the most forlorn, those driven out, those odd pieces of humanity that don’t seem to match the set—God collects them all and finds the perfect place for them…all gathered around the Christ child, who Himself, has experienced their grief firsthand.
This is why I’m so grateful that this particular lesson of the Flight into Egypt is not left out of the Christmas story—because without it, the story would, honestly, be saccharine sweet. Jesus didn’t have a perfect and protected childhood. God didn’t wait until Jesus was older and more “mature” or experienced to begin His work in the world. Rather, God started to work right away through the Incarnation.
God’s Incarnation is one that embraces the sick and the suffering, the orphan, widow, the poor, and the immigrant…our texts tell us especially these.
And, through the liturgy, the church has, for centuries, placed the Feast of the Holy Innocents some three days after Christmas Day—right in the midst of the Christmas celebrations—to remind us that the Incarnation isn’t about tinsel and bows as much as it is about an awareness of just how radical God’s grace really is, a grace that reaches out to find all those in need of redemption, release, and recovery….to collect them….and bring them home safely.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Christmas II, Year C
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
January 3, 2016