This Christmas the Alabama Shakespeare Festival produced The Best Christmas Pageant Ever as one of its offerings. It’s a cute play about a church Christmas pageant in which an unchurched family of juvenile delinquents—known as the Herdman children—ends up with all the lead roles—Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and Harold the angel (you know Harold, he’s the one who says, “Fear not! I bring you good tidings of great joy…”). By casting the Herdmans in the main roles of the Christmas story, the audience is afforded an opportunity to not only hear the story in a new and fresh manner, but to hear some details as to why the story is told and its particular details that we might have always taken for granted, as the Herdmans had never heard the story and question various aspects of the plot. But it is not only the Herdmans that don’t know the details of the story. At dress rehearsal, one of the other children in the pageant makes the comment that the Herdman children playing Mary and Joseph look like refugees. To which another child responds, that the real Mary and Joseph actually were refugees.
We read that story, or at least a portion of it, in this morning’s Gospel reading. The Wise Men had come to pay homage to this newborn king. On the way, they stopped by Herod’s place who sent them on to Bethlehem with the request that once they had found the child to send him word so that he might pay homage to the child as well. And apparently, the wise men were no dummies—having been warned in a dream they returned home by another road. When Herod discovered he had been deceived, he loses it and has all children two years of age and under killed. This is where our Gospel picks up the story today—Joseph, having been warned in a dream, flees Bethlehem and takes his small family to Egypt as refugees.
It’s a little difficult for me to reconcile these two pictures of Christmas—the silent night, holy night image and the chaotic flight to a foreign and strange country in a desperate response to the terror and threat of the political power and tyranny of Herod. This Holy Family, humble and unassuming, do not meet my imagined definition of those who would threaten the political and religious authority and institutions of any day. But apparently, the peace of the stable is not long-lived, the awe of shepherds and angels and wise men might inspire but also seem to paint a target on this young family as well as all the young families in Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus seem to be the lucky ones—they may become refugees, but they are able to get out prior to persecution, others are not so lucky.
Ahmad was a young man, maybe twenty. He was all alone when he arrived at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. He was from Syria, a faithful, practicing Muslim, and had been studying at University before fleeing his home, his country. Though Muslim, he regularly attended services at St. Paul’s which is an Episcopal Church. His affect was sad, and he was quiet and aloof, yet he seemed genuinely interested in the liturgy and Scriptures. After a couple of weeks of Ahmad’s attending regular services, the rector of St. Paul’s sat down with Ahmad and asked him to tell his story. Ahmad’s story was not that much different from other young Muslim men who visited the center.
Most of the refugees who came to the center were young Muslim men, ranging in age from 17-35. Typically they were alone, though some did have other family members. Most all had refused to be radicalized—they had refused to join the ranks of the radical Islamists who had invaded and taken power in their cities and towns. One of the tactics used by radicals in attempting to force young men to join them is the woeful killing and destruction of their families and homes. This is why many of the men who came to the refugee center were alone. They were fleeing a homeland they did not recognize any longer, a homeland that held no attachments for them because all that they loved, person and property, had been destroyed. The murder of their families as motivation to join the jihadist became the trigger for these young men to flee, to escape to a promise of hope in the West.
Ahmad’s story was not that very different. He too had refused to be recruited which would eventually lead to his entire family being put to death. But Ahmad had committed an even greater sin in the jihadist view—Ahmad was a biblical scholar. He studied the Bible at University, not because he wanted to convert, but because he found truth in ancient texts. Islam is, after all, an Abrahamic faith just as Judaism and Christianity. His study of the Bible made his position even more dangerous than that of his contemporaries and his refusal to denounce his work or join the extremists was doubly offensive. In retribution, Ahmad’s sister was attacked and when he went to see her in the hospital, the rest of his family was killed. He left his sister, believing she was safe in the hospital, to go and see about his family, at which point his sister was then murdered in her hospital bed. So, he ran. He wasn’t sure how he made it out of Syria alive, but he knew he had no other choice—flee or die.
So now, he is in Italy—alone, scared, confused. We call Ahmad a refugee. We are wary of him and look upon him with suspicion. But, the truth is, Ahmad is a lost young man who has known too much grief and suffering for anyone only twenty years of age. He has lost his country, his family, and in a way even his faith. He is all alone in a strange and foreign land, having literally run for his life.
This is the truth of our world today. Unfortunately that truth hasn’t changed much in the last 2000 years. Joseph had a dream that the newborn Jesus’s life was in danger and to flee to Egypt—and so he does. He takes the young family and they escape the violence and hatred of Herod. Herod will go on to slaughter the Innocents not knowing the Christ child has escaped. The land becomes unrecognizable—there is no justice, no truth. The silent night becomes a night of terror. The fear of a loss of power and authority has led to the insanity of murder and genocide.
Matthew’s version of these events reminds us of another time and place and person. Pharaoh is the wicked king in that story, Egypt is the dangerous place, and Moses is the baby that is threatened. Matthew inverts the story of the birth of Moses as a fulfillment story. Fulfillment story does not mean that bad things had to happen in order for something good to happen—it does not mean that babies had to die in order that the savior might live. Fulfillment is not about prediction and occurrence in Scripture. Fulfillment in the New Testament scriptures is always about disclosing meaning, not making something happening.
When Jesus says “the Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He doesn’t mean that something has literally happened, he means that in being fulfilled, it has disclosed meaning. Within the tragedy that is Matthew 2, we find a fullness of meaning. Its not that God required children to die in order for him to come into the world, it is the naming of a reality without explaining it away. This is what the world is—dark and violent and dangerous, driven by fear and domination. We want to ask why God allows this to happen—the slaughter of Innocents, the murder of Ahmad’s family—but what scripture does is simply to name what exists—a world in need of salvation, a world that needs hope, a world that needs a Messiah.
The inversion of the Exodus story is the telling of a simple truth—whatever constitutes safety, it is not a place, a location. Whereas the Promised Land was that place of safety in Moses’ day, it has now become a place of danger. And the place of danger, Egypt has become the destination of hope. This is the world that needs to be saved. This dangerous creation is what God has committed to saving. God enters in, not as a pilgrim journeying to a destination, but as a pilgrim journeying away from his home: a pilgrim in search of salvation, in search of hope. I wonder how different the world would look to us, if we saw refugees like Ahmad, for what they truly were—pilgrims on a journey in search of hope.
Pain and suffering repel us. The incarnation is the embracing of that which we are repelled by, the embracing of that pain and suffering. God does not enter into a perfect world nor does he stay aloof from the world that is suffering. Instead, he embraces it and us. He doesn’t stop and turn around, duck his head, or avoid eye contact when he sees us coming. Instead he bears our burdens with us, he allows his heart to be broken in all the ways that you and I and Ahmad know brokenness in our own hearts.
The world, both then and now, is angry and violent and afraid—a great darkness exists in this world and many have allowed their fears and anger to propel them further into that darkness. Yet, it is this darkness that God enters. And it is in this darkness that God continues to be present. What we cannot forget is that it is this world God chooses to save—the one that includes the slaughter of the Innocents, the one that includes the slaughter of Ahmad’s family. It is a dangerous creation that God has entered in, that God has committed to saving and the truth is that the only answer to the question of what constitutes safety is God himself.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
2 Christmas Year A: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
January 4, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer