Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Merry Christmas! The church has always celebrated the days from December 25th Christmas to January 6th as the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is the season to reflect on the birth of Jesus and the earliest days of his life. Scripture itself, however, actually tells us very little about Jesus’ infancy and childhood. So at the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII promoted the observance of the First Sunday after Christmas as a day to honor the Holy Family as a model for the Christian family instead. And since Lutherans are not against the family, after all we can complain like our Catholic neighbors when our children don’t visit us, and complain just as strongly when they stay too long, we have followed suit and honor this day for the Holy Family as well.
While the St. Luke’s gospel narrates the night of Jesus’ birth, St. Matthew’s gospel guides us through the events that followed soon after. The story begins with an ominous verse of the arrival of the wise men to the court of King Herod, and their search for the new born king of the Jews. We read, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” The arrival of the wise men caused panic in the royal house. King Herod hastily assembled “the chief priests and scribes” and demanded to know “where the Christ should be born.” When he heard the word Bethlehem, he then sent the wise men off to find the child, with the request that they return to Jerusalem, so that he too could pay him homage. But when the wise men did not return, King knew that he had been tricked, and issued his infamous order that his soldiers slay “all the children that were in Bethlehem.” Some scholars question whether Herod would actually turn on innocent children, but his act fits menacingly with his paranoid personality. After all, he executed his favorite wife and several sons, as well as others whom he suspected of treachery in one form or another. Thus warned of King Herod’s anger towards this child by an angel in a dream, Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
St. Matthew never mentions how long the Holy Family actually stayed there. We read of the act of terror in the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem, and that when King Herod has died, Joseph was told in another dream, that he and the Holy Family could return to Nazareth. Nothing more. According to the traditions of the ancient Coptic Church, however, the Holy Family spent 3 and a half-years in Egypt. There are over 26 historical sites connected to Jesus’ childhood there. It’s why Egypt likes to refer to itself as a Holy Land. Egypt was a logical place for a Jewish family to find refuge. The largest Jewish community outside of Israel was located in Egypt and had had lived there for generations since the time of the Babylonian Captivity. More importantly, it was part of the Roman Empire, but outside the dominions of King Herod. It was also linked by a coastal road known as “the way of the sea,” making travel between Judea and Egypt easy and relatively safe.
One of the first sites for the Holy Family’s Flight is actually on the outskirts of Bethlehem. We visited it on our trip last year to the Holy Land. It is known as the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. According to tradition, the place is where the Holy Family found refuge during the Massacre of the Innocents. The name Milk Grotto derived from the story that a “drop of milk” from the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave and changed its color to white.
One of the most beloved stories about the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt comes from the infancy narratives known as the New Testament Apocrypha dating from the eighth and ninth centuries. In these stories, the Holy Family could not flee to Egypt too quickly. Rather, as fatigue and hunger overtook them, they rested frequently along the way, settling for the night under a fruited date palm. Here, it is said, Mary nourished her baby at the breast and Jesus performed an early miracle. He caused a branch of the date palm to bend toward earth, so that the fruit might easily be picked. Mary and Joseph ate heartily and stored more dates to sustain them on their travels. The child then asked the tree to raise itself and release a spring of water from its roots. The water flowed, clear and cool; and the family’s thirst was quenched.
The Holy Family was often only days ahead of Herod’s soldiers in their flight. In a story referred to as the Miracle of the Corn, the pursuing soldiers interrogated peasants along the way asking them when the Holy Family had passed by. The peasants truthfully said it was when they were sowing their wheat seed; however the wheat had suddenly and miraculously grown to full height. The soldiers believed it was best to give up their search since they were obviously weeks ahead of them.
In another story, Joseph and Mary were confronted by robbers. One of the robbers wished to murder the Holy Family and to steal the little store of goods that they were hiding… the gold, frankincense and myrrh that they had had been given by the wise men. But something about the baby Jesus went straight to the heart of the young thief named Dismas. He refused to allow any harm the Holy Family. He looked at the tiny child wrapped warmly in blankets, and held lovingly in Mary’s arms and said, “O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me, and forget not this hour.” So, the legend says that Jesus and the thief Dismas met again at Mount of Calvary on the day of his crucifixion, and Dismas, now the penitent thief on the cross, received the forgiveness and mercy that his soul was seeking. His words echo the ancient scripture, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
There is yet another story when the Holy Family had first arrived in Egypt, that they entered into a temple. In this place there had been set up three hundred and sixty-five idols, one for each day of the year with its own honors and sacred rites were to be paid to the idol for its particular day.. And it came to pass, that when Mary entered the Temple with the little child, that all the idols fell down to the ground shattering their faces into broken to pieces. Thus, they plainly showed that no idol held power over Christ Jesus. This fulfilled what had been spoken the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the Lord will come upon a swift cloud, and will enter Egypt, and all the handiwork of the Egyptians shall be moved at his presence.”
But it isn’t the miracles alone that Jesus performed, that should inspire us, and teach us of the love and care of family. We should be moved by the arduous journey itself, and the Holy Family’s ability to identify itself and be counted among the poor and needy and the disenfranchised, especially living with the fatigue that many parents must endure for the sake of their children’s future.. On a visit to Boston’s Fine Arts Museum, some 30 years ago, where my college roommate was serving as the assistant curator, I was shown a painting by French artist Luc Oliver Merson entitled, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt. “ It was completed in 1879 and toured across much of America before it found its place in Boston.
“Rest on the Flight in Egypt” isn’t your typical portrait of holy family. The painting shows a moonlit landscape of an austere desert beneath a vast almost starless sky. On the left side, filling nearly a third of the canvas stands a towering statue of a Sphynx atop a rectangular plinth against the darkened backdrop of the sky and desert. The blind Sphynx gazes aimlessly into the night sky. Mary, perhaps to protect herself and the child, is sleeping upright, barely reclining, between the feet of the Sphynx. Joseph, his face obscured by a hood, sleeps on the sands on the desert floor. A thin ribbon of smoke rises from the smoldering fire. The donkey sleeps standing. The only intentionally “religious” part of the painting is the glow around the baby resting in his mother’s arms just below the shadowy face of the mighty Sphynx. Like a Rembrandt painting with a single source of light, the symbolism is what struck me. The good news for all the world to see, is that the light of the Christ child can be seen even in the shadow of the towering Sphynx.
It is a stark, and terrifying image, suggesting the dark night of the soul for any parent who loves and must protect their child. There will be midnight hours of the soul, where it is only the light of a child’s future that keeps us going. With that said, the implication of Merson’s painting is a hopeful one. Merson shows us that the divine child shines whether one’s eyes are closed or open. In the depths of the dark night lies the promise of a morning when, having rested, the Holy Family will wake and move on, leaving the blind Sphinx of the old order behind in the dust. That is good news for every family in times of hardship, however unendurable a dark night plagues us, however much it keeps us from our urgent endeavors, when we rise from that sleep, we will discover a new light and day dawning.
Since the time of the early church, these stories of Jesus’ childhood have inspired Christian men and women to look again upon the challenges of their faith. Now this may seem peculiar to you. After all, these stories of human brutality and hatred seem so contrary to the joy of this festive season. And it’s true, in the midst of the flurry of Christmas activity, this portion of the gospel and legends could easily be overlooked. But my friends, there is a harsh reality to the story of our Savior’s childhood that cannot be dismissed. This world of pain is the world our Lord came to redeem. This world of sorrow is the world the infant Jesus came to save.
You see, the Christmas gospel is not simply the story of our Savior resting peacefully in a manger, but it is the story of God’s wondrous love in the midst of the world’s darkness. It is the story of the homeless seeking refuge. It is the story of the persecuted seeking protection in a reign of terror. It is the story of God’s innocent ones being neglected. It is the story of poor nations seeking the charity and mercy of richer nations. It is the story of warring factions struggling for power. It is the story of a world that so closely resembles our own. A world in which we ourselves may feel helpless to change the march of time. But my friends, it is also the story of a gracious God who so loved his creation that he was willing to place his only son in harm’s way in order to give you the gift of salvation. And that is the true wonder of Christmas.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.