The Displaced

 Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.[1]

 

With these lines the poet W.H. Auden captures something of the mood of these last days of Christmas. We’ve only today reached the twelfth and final day of Christmas, but seeing no drummers drumming nor even pipers piping, we’re already beginning to put the Feast behind us. It’s been a nice break, but now it’s time to get back to the office and pay bills and conjugate verbs and clean our rooms. Time to return to the real world, we’re tempted to think. Christmas sometimes can feel like an escape from reality, with its angels and dreams and magi and stars. Almost like a fairy tale, removed from the cold hardness of life.

 

Almost. But only almost.

 

Because the story of Christmas does not happen “once upon a time,” but in Herod’s time. Jesus, we read, is born “in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (Mt 2:1). It’s a story set squarely in the midst of the brutal political reality of Herod the Great. Herod clawed his way into power as the client king of the Roman province of Judea in 37 B.C. and ruled there with an iron fist for over thirty years. His reign was marked by an ambitious building program: he built great fortresses and theaters and, most famously, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the base of which stands to this day as the Western Wall on the Temple Mount. Herod’s reign was also bloody; he executed many he saw as political threats, including one of his wives and three of his children. And the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he ordered a massacre of “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under.” It’s an utterly realistic portrait of a tyrant willing to do whatever it takes to maintain power—the all too familiar story of a cynical and ruthless politician.

 

Jesus is born in Herod’s time. So, the story of his birth is both extraordinary—full of strange and joyful miracles—and also relentlessly ordinary. As ordinary as anything in this devastated world. As normal as a newspaper headline. A murderous tyrant, slaughtered children, a refugee family fleeing violence; Matthew’s story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is the sort of thing we might see on the 10:00 News.

 

The UN refugee agency estimates that there are over 70 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. That’s 70 million people who have been forced to flee their homes “as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.”[2] That means that approximately 1 out of every 100 humans is someone forced to flee home. Being displaced has become as ordinary as that.

 

Half of the displaced are children. Some 30 million children have been forced to flee their homes. That’s more than seven times the population of Oklahoma. 30 million boys and girls from countries across the world: from Syria and Afghanistan, El Salvador and Eritrea, Iraq and Ukraine. Not long ago, I came across the stories of three of these displaced children: “an 11-year-old boy from eastern Ukraine named Oleg, a 12-year-old Syrian girl named Hana and a 9-year-old South Sudanese boy named Chuol.” In the introduction to their stories, the editor writes, “As dissimilar as these three children are, they’re bound in an unhappy fellowship, not only with one another but also with the other displaced kids around the world […] and with the numberless children displaced throughout history by all the world’s wars.”[3]

 

We can say further that this “unhappy fellowship” also includes Jesus. Our Lord became one of the displaced when Joseph arose and “took the young child and his mother by night,” and fled into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Mt. 2:14). The Holy Family were forcibly displaced by threat of violence and lived in another country until it was safe to return. The Christmas story is the story of a refugee family. It is as realistic and unsentimental as that.

 

At the same time, the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is also more than another story about displaced persons. Because when Matthew writes that Joseph “arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: and was there until the death of Herod,” he goes on to write: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’” (Mt 2:18). In other words, the story of the flight into Egypt has significance that transcends its status as one of the numberless stories of the displaced. It’s more than another story about the brokenness and violence of the world. It’s a story about the purposes of God. It’s the story of one of the things the Lord did “for us and for our salvation.”

 

In a sermon preached early in the 5th century, Peter Chrysologus, the bishop of Ravenna, made a bold and insightful claim. “Christ,” he said, “fled for us, not for himself.”[4] What difference might it make to see this story as something the Lord did for us? Let’s look more closely at Matthew’s narrative to find out.

 

Notice first how this story recalls the story of the people of Israel. The patriarch Jacob and his family fled famine in the land of Canaan by going down to Egypt, where they received provision at the hand of Joseph. So, too, Christ is brought down to Egypt to escape danger in the care of another Joseph. In the Exodus, when the Lord led Israel out of Egypt, he spoke to Pharaoh through Moses, saying, “Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me’” (Ex 4:22–23). And again, years later, through the prophet Hosea, he said, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). And this brings us to St. Matthew, who sees this text fulfilled in Christ. Past and future come together in Jesus the Son; in his flight to and return from Egypt, he takes up the exodus story that will find its completion in his death and resurrection. The whole story of God’s salvation becomes present in him. Christ’s flight into Egypt and return embodies and enacts God’s deliverance of his people Israel.

 

Look once more at Matthew’s citation of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Hosea wrote at a time when the people of Israel had been exiled to Babylon. In the passage to which Matthew refers, Hosea is speaking of the Lord’s compassion for his people and his desire to bring Israel home from exile. Hosea pictures Israel as God’s wayward son who keeps running away when called: “The more I called them, the more they went from me,” he says (Hos. 11:2). Israel keeps returning to Egypt, as it were. And so do you and I. We, too, are wayward children; we keep returning to Egypt, returning to the devices and desires of our own hearts. But not Jesus. He does what a son is meant to do; he lives in perfect obedience to the Father. Pope Benedict once wrote: “He is truly the Son. He is not going to run away from the Father. He returns home, and he leads others home. He is always on the path toward God and thus he leads the way back from exile to the homeland, back to all that is authentic and true.”[5] That is to say: Christ fled for us, he was displaced in order to bring us home, to bring us back to God, that we, too, might be the children of God. “Because of his immeasurable love,” says Irenaeus, “he became what we are in order to make us what he is.”[6]

 

Thus, the story of the Flight into Egypt is more than a story about the displaced; it is a story of what the Lord does for us and for our salvation. It’s a story of God entering into the depths of human existence in order to heal and sanctify the whole of human existence. And so this story about scattering is also a story about gathering. Indeed, it’s one part of thestory of gathering: namely, the story of the Lord gathering us to himself in the person of Jesus. To use the language of St Paul, the Flight into Egypt is part of the story of God, the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” working out his loving purposes, that “he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Eph. 1:10).

 

The story of the Flight into Egypt is a salvation story. And in it, we catch a glimpse of how abnormal the violence of this world really is. We’re tempted sometimes to think that Herod’s time is all there is, that the violence and displacement caused by the Herods of this world is simply part of the way things are. We’re tempted, in short, to think, as a character in a P.D. James novel does, that, “At the heart of the universe there is cruelty. We are predators and are preyed upon, every living thing.”[7] The displaced in their millions and the specter of terror that haunts our world and a thousand other horrors seem sometimes to bear her out. But the Christmas story proclaims instead that “at the heart of the universe there is love.” That’s how another character in the same novel puts it. And it is true. “At the heart of the universe there is love.” Love is the heart of reality. There is nothing more real than love. Nothing more enduring than the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, who was born for us, and fled for us, and was tempted for us, and suffered for us, and died for us, and was raised for us, and who pours out his Spirit into our hearts. There is nothing deeper or broader or higher than the love of God for us. Nothing truer than the Love who says, “In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

 

It’s Christmastime. The time of Herod is at an end. Thanks be to God!

[1] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being, from “The Flight into Egypt”, part III.

[2] UNCHR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018.

[3] “The Displaced,” New York Times Magazine (November 5, 2015).

[4] Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 150, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1–13.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 111–112.

[6] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V.pref.

[7] P.D. James, Devices and Desires.