Matthew 2:13-23 (NIV)
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
For the next two weeks we will be reflecting on stories that are on the edge of the Christmas story, connected to the narrative but leading away from the manger and often missed in our focus on the nativity. And so this morning we have heard of the flight to Egypt and the massacre of the innocents. The threat posed by Herod is heavily hinted at before the Magi even visit Jesus, so let's start by jumping back and reminding ourselves of what has happened to this point.
Wise men from the East, who some scholars speculate may have been Zoroastrian priests, read messages in the stars, and when they saw a star that they believed heralded the birth of a new king, they headed towards it with gifts in hand. Presumably thinking that a king must be born in a palace, they arrived in Jerusalem and presented themselves to Herod, king of Judea in name but expected to serve the interests of Rome. When he heard why they had come, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. I am fascinated by that detail, because it's quite something to say that an entire population is afraid. Does a sense of fear permeate the whole city, or is "all Jerusalem" shorthand for the ruling class? Are they scared for the same reason that Herod is, which is presumably because he sees this new king as a threat to his own reign, or are they more worried about his reaction? I can't answer those questions, because the answers aren't in the text, but I do think we can use our imagination to explore the edges and the gaps of scripture, to wonder at what might lay beyond the words on the page. We have to do so with a humility that recognises our imaginings are only possibilities and not necessarily truths, but I think this kind of active engagement is good for our relationship with the Bible.
Back to the story, and we're not told straightaway what Herod's plan is, but we know he must be scheming, because he calls on his priests to use scripture to help pin down the location of the new king, then sends the Magi to find him and report back with his location so that he can worship him. Nothing else about Herod's response suggests that he is feeling worshipful, but he obviously covers his real feelings well enough that the Magi are not suspicious, and they happily continue on their way to find Jesus and present their gifts. It is only after an angel warns them in a dream that they make plans to return home by a different route. Indulging in a little more imagination, I wonder how long Herod waited for the Magi to return to Jerusalem. I wonder if he sent people to Bethlehem, where they learnt that the Magi had already left, heading away from the city. I wonder with what trepidation Herod's advisers told him that he has been outwitted. However it played out, the penny eventually dropped, and as we heard in this morning's reading, Herod responded in spectacularly violent fashion, ordering the death of all boys under the age of two.
There is disagreement over whether or not this event, often known as the massacre of the innocents, really happened as no corroborating evidence has been found. Some scholars think it is folklore, based on Herod's reputation or the murder of his own sons. Others suggest that as Bethlehem was a small town, it would probably have been a small number of deaths, so that it may well have happened but not have been deemed worthy of mention in other historical records. That itself is a sad thought, that a handful of child deaths would not be worthy of comment, when every one would have brought unimaginable sorrow, and mattered no less for being one of few not many. Whatever the truth, and however many children may have been murdered, it is a difficult passage to read. We hear the echo of the weeping and mourning, and maybe it is at this point that our imagination fails us, because we don't want to come any nearer to the horror. Perhaps we hope that on this occasion it is myth, although reality makes it frighteningly plausible. We only need to look to the conflict in Ukraine to see that children are readily made collateral damage in the power games of weak and frightened men.
That Jesus may have come so close to death so soon after birth highlights the fragility of human existence and the injustice of the world, and reminds us why God showed up to promise another kind of life, but death does not come yet as another miraculous visitation changes the course of the story. Joseph too saw an angel in a dream, who told him to take his new family and escape to Egypt. Perhaps it seemed an odd choice of sanctuary to Joseph, given that his ancestors had been slaves in that country, but they had first arrived there seeking escape from famine. Egypt had been a place of oppression, but before that it had been a place of safety, and it would be so again. It was comfortably outside Herod's reach, and there were two significant Jewish communities there, where the family could hope to find welcome.
So Jesus and his parents flee persecution and seek sanctuary in a strange land. It is impossible to escape the impression that Matthew presents the infant Christ as a refugee. The image you see on the screen is an icon of the Holy Family by icon painter Kelly Latimore, and clearly intends to emphasise their refugee status. A few years ago, when children were being taken from their families at the US-Mexico border and held in appalling conditions, a Methodist church in California placed the figures from their nativity scene in separate cages, with Jesus wrapped in a foil blanket similar to those used at detention centres. They are striking images of God entering the world in a position of extreme vulnerability, identifying with those whose lives have been torn apart. As the refugee crisis has worsened in recent years, with the UN estimating that there are now 103 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, it has become increasingly common to draw on the image of Christ as refugee. You may be aware that King Charles chose a poem called Refugee by Malcolm Guite to be read at the Royal Carol Service.
It would be an extraordinary choice in any year, for a king to choose a poem that ends by acknowledging that in the end his own power will count for nothing, because there is another throne he will stand before. But it seems a truly astonishing choice right now, to use such a public platform to focus on Christ as a refugee and call to mind the other "displaced people on the long road of weariness and want", given our government's record on asylum. It can only have been intentional, and to me it is a challenge to see Christ among those seeking our shores, and to respond as if each one of them were Christ himself.
I said at the beginning of the service that we would be looking at some of the stories that follow the nativity, and what they might mean for how we carry out the work of Christmas: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart. I think that in drawing our attention to the very particular experience of this very particular family, this story reminds us to look at the very human stories behind the headlines, to see that every displaced person is fleeing something and seeking something, to understand that people risk their lives one last time because otherwise they risk their lives every day. I think that recognising Jesus as a refugee shows us that God stands not just in sympathy but also in solidarity with those crossing borders in search of safety, and calls us to do likewise. We can do that by supporting refugees in practical ways through personal connections or aid agencies, we can do that by opposing hostile policies which limit the opportunities for claiming asylum and make life difficult for those who do succeed in making claims, and we can do that by continuing to pray about and respond to the situations that drive people from their homes. It seems appropriate then that we end this reflection with a prayer for refugees.
God of love, you are the God who takes the side of the oppressed. You are the God who is close to the brokenhearted. You are the God who raises high the humble. We pray for refugees around the world. May they be welcomed with open arms. May their needs for food, shelter, clothing and love be met. May their wounds – emotional and physical – be healed. We pray that the world will hear their plight. We pray that the world will have compassion. We pray that the world will take action on their behalf. In Jesus’ name, amen.