Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is not easy to preach on Christmas Eve, and frankly, it’s not much easier to preach on the Sunday after. On Christmas Eve you struggle with toddlers impatiently tugging at their parents’ arms to head home and open Christmas presents. One Christmas, I heard a little boy say a little too loudly. “Daddy, is the preacher finished?” The father painfully whispered a little too loudly as well. “Yep, he’s finished. He just hasn’t stopped talking. Yet.” And of course, there are the usual sermon critics. Mark Twain once chided. “He charged nothing for his preaching. And it was worth it.”
The First Sunday of Christmas, however, offers its own set of challenges. Most often, you simply wonder whether anyone will be in church at all. As a missionary family in Lithuania, 20 some years ago, our little family of four began the worship with on that First Sunday with just us and the organist sitting in the organ loft. Ten minutes into the worship service, a curious tourist walked into the church. We were so excited about another worshiper, that I ran down, welcomed him, grabbed him by the arm and led him to the organ loft, and then started the worship service all over again. The poor fellow didn’t know what hit him. Oddly, I regard that moment as one of our family’s finest hours in Lithuania.
Over the centuries, the church has dedicated the twelve days from December 25th Christmas to January 6th as a season to reflect on the birth of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, has chosen to designate the First Sunday of Christmas each year as the Feast of the Holy Family. Together, Mary, Joseph and Jesus form the ideal human family to whom we are to find guidance, comfort and solace.
Unfortunately, scripture doesn’t really tell us much about Jesus’ childhood. Instead, we have to turn to the legends recorded in the non-canonical writings such as “The Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas.” Here you can read of Jesus as a child fashioned birds out of clay and breathing life into them, and leading wild lions out of the city to the amazement of his neighbors. There is even a story of Jesus raising an angry man back from the dead. Apparently, the man was scolding the boy and he was struck dead by Jesus. Mary and Joseph pleaded with Jesus to make him bring the man back to life. Perhaps, that was not the most flattering image of Jesus and the Holy Family. St. Matthew does however record the story of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt.
That story begins with the appearance of the star in the East and an ominous verse spoken in Jerusalem at the arrival of the wise men who were searching for the new born king of the Jews. Matthew writes that “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 “in Bethlehem,” he 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, Herod knew that he had been tricked, and issued his order that his soldiers slay “all the children that were in Bethlehem.” Joseph, however, warned in a dream of King Herod’s wrath, fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
St. Matthew never mentions how long the Holy Family actually stayed there. Although according to the traditions of the ancient Coptic Church, 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. The distance from Bethlehem to Egypt was approximately 300 miles and would have taken 3 weeks on foot and donkey. It was there along the way, amid their sacrifices, struggles and trials that Joseph, Mary and Jesus truly became a family. That is the ideal that we embrace on this Feast of the Holy Family.
The journey begins when Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph had to make a decision. Warned by an angel in a dream, he knew that that in order to protect this child, Jesus, he knew he had to abandon the comfort of his own home, family and livelihood. The journey awaiting them was marked by fear, uncertainty and unease. Joseph, like so many fathers had to think not of himself, but the well being of his family. One cannot meditate on the struggle of the Holy Family, without seeing the pain and sorrow of the countless fathers and their families today. Certainly, there are those families who have been forced to become refuges to leave their homes and their own land in search of safety, peace, serenity and work. But there are also those families who live and journey and struggle with the anxiety and fear in their own home of not being able to make ends meet, of unstable marital situations, and of the fear of illness for their children. There are times, these fathers, like Joseph feel powerless, but still they place their lives and livelihood into the hands of God.
Pope Francis recently said, “Remember that happiness is not having a sky without storms, walking without accidents, working without fatigue, personal relationships without disappointments. Being happy is finding strength in forgiveness, hope in battles, confidence in fear, love in discord.” That is how Joseph chose to face their escape into Egypt.
Following in the steps of Abraham and Sarah, Mary the Mother of Jesus, had to learn to make a home in a strange land where the people worshiped alien gods. She could no longer depend on family and neighbors to support her in her faith. She was leaving behind home, Temple and synagogue to live among a foreign people who spoke a foreign language. Her heart must have broken for all the women and children who could not flee. She alone knew that she carried with her the Light of the World but that his time was not yet come. Only Mary could keep the light of faith alive in her infant son in the land of Egypt. That is the role that every mother must play in the family- even in the foreignness of our own communities.
Mary watched over her son day and night. The journey to Egypt did not go quickly. According to legend, 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. Mary knew what she needed to do, and that God would provide it.
Finally, we turn to the infant Jesus. Today’s bulletin cover, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Luc Olivier Merson isn’t your typical portrait of the holy family. The painting shows a moonlit desert landscape beneath a vast, almost starless sky. On the left side, stands a towering statue of a Sphynx atop a rectangular plinth against the darkened backdrop. The blind Sphynx gazes aimlessly into the night sky. The Virgin 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 too sleeps, but is standing. A light beams from the baby Jesus resting in his mother’s arms just below the shadowy face of the mighty Sphynx. It is the good news of the Christ Child for all the world to see even in the shadow of the towering Sphynx. It is the light that shines in the darkness whether one’s eyes are closed or open.
Sadly, painfully and regretfully, that image, reminds us that there will be midnight hours, even for God’s holy families who choose to live and follow him. There will be midnight hours, when it is only the light of a child’s future that keeps you going. But that is what you know you must do. Some critics might suggest that these stories of human brutality and hatred seem so contrary to the joyful spirit of the Christmas. Why not save them for some other time.. And it’s true, in the midst of the flurry of Christmas activity, this portion of the gospel and legends the embellish them could easily be overlooked. But that is the harsh reality to the story of our Savior’s childhood that cannot be dismissed. This world of pain is precisely the world our Lord came to save. This world of sorrow is the world the infant Jesus came to change.
Jesus chose to belong to a human family to experience life’s real hardships, so that no one, not even you, in your darkest hours would feel excluded from the loving closeness of God. The escape into Egypt teaches that God is truly present where ever and whenever his beloved children are in danger, where ever there is suffering, where ever people are fleeing, and where ever they experience rejection and abandonment; but more importantly God is also lovingly and magnificently present where his beloved children have dreams, where they hope to return in freedom to their homeland and plans and choose life for their family and dignity for themselves and their loved ones.
My friends, this story for the Feast of the Holy Family and their escape into Egypt offers us good news. In the depths of every dark night lies the promise of a bright 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 may be. We live with the assurance that when we do rise from sleep, our Savior will shine as the light of a new day dawning. It is with that hope that we enter into the new year that stands before us. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.