“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 is not hard to know that it is true. The names and faces might change but it is a story that continues to be lived in lands throughout the world today. We have seen the pictures. We have read the news. We have 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? What feelings does it evoke? What images fill your 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 am also talking about the thousands upon thousands of people who have had to flee and are fleeing from their homelands because of persecution, tyrannical rulers, oppressive governments, and wars. One child arrived safely in Egypt. Other children, together with their parents, have drowned and washed up on beaches. Others were turned back from safety because nobody wanted them because they were different. All were refugees and they shared a common story.
I cannot explain why one child found refuge and the others do not. 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 other children. It is not because God loves Jesus more than His other sons and daughters. It is not because Jesus is God’s Eternal Son and the other children were just normal human beings. If we think it is any one of those things, we have missed the point of Christmas. We have denied that the Word became flesh; human flesh, flesh like yours, like mine, like your children’s. We have forgotten 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 those children and families who sought and who seek safety did not reach their 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 those from oppressed and war-torn countries, but with you and me as well.
And if it sounds like I just named us as refugees you heard right. Jesus, that little boy who fled to Egypt with His mother and father, and all of those children, with their families, who have sought safety and peace are the faces of a refugee humanity, a humanity you and I share with them.
In today’s refugee faces 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 have 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 have ever left the known and familiar and traveled in darkness to the unknown and unfamiliar; if you have 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 have ever experienced these or a thousand other things like them, then you know what it is like to be a refugee. And my guess is that we all know what that is like.
We may not have had the same experience as Jesus and the Holy Family or the thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, or Iran, 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 is also about a deep longing and drive for a new life and a new place in life. It is 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. And this Child is Jesus, the Christ, the Expected and Anointed One.
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 do not know what your refugee story is, but I will bet you have one. I will 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 of 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 none of that happened. 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, the refugees in the news, and our own flights to Egypt. Oh, that we might remember it all.