Isaiah 63:7-9 • Hebrews 2:10-18 • Matthew 2:13-23
The Christmas cycle of readings in Matthew do not give us much time to rest at the manger, do they? It seems we just got there, we just got our coats off, our bags unpacked, and settled down in front of the fire with a glass of eggnog. We’ve just got to greet the baby for the first time, and if we’re lucky hold him once as his breathing slows, as he forms his body to ours and falls asleep, and suddenly we’re off again—running from Herod and his threats and into Egypt.
This story!—I almost feel guilty for taking a few days this past week to go slow, to sleep in a bit, to enjoy the kids and be around the house and read and rest and reflect on the year that has gone by. But perhaps I shouldn’t.
If you’ve been following along, you may have noticed that the lectionary has skipped ahead. We’ve missed the first part of Matthew 2. We’ve skipped right over the visiting magi with their gifts and their visit to Herod which has led to the narrow escape and the holocaust we see in the rear-view mirror of today’s text.
But perhaps these two movements—rest and running, stillness and escape—are not as far apart as we might first think. Really, they are two perspectives on health and wholeness. They are two paths toward what we might think of as the home we are constantly in search of.
Matthew is doing much more in this compact story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, return and subsequent exile that we can unpack on this morning, but consider this: the story of Jesus is at least a recasting of Israel’s history. Once, salvation came for Israel by its escape from Egypt, across the waters and into the Promised Land. But now it seems the route has been reversed. Escape back to Egypt is a key to this family’s salvation. It seems there is something about going back into Israel’s story that is essential for Israel to be redeemed.
And perhaps the message is equally true for us. Isn’t it true that our old stories—the important ones, at least—have a hold on us? They define us. They shape our response to the world, to those we love. I wonder what those stories are for you.
We so often find ourselves under the spell of their power. Oftentimes that’s a gift—it’s what drives us, what shapes us as we are and as we hope to be. But sometimes these stories massacre us; they trap us in the same old destructive cycles that undo us and drive us away from the very things we most desire and need.
I think of a story told by the writer of one of my all-time favorite books, The Brothers K. The book is itself a retelling of another story with a similar name by Dostoyevsky. But the story I’m thinking of is from a book of personal reflections and essays called My Story As Told by Water.
In it David James Duncan tells the story of the generational gulf between him and his father as it grows and festers and ultimately explodes at the dinner table. The gulf—in the 60s over the Vietnam War—became a tragic ocean that seemed impossible to cross.
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp. [David James Duncan. My Story As Told By Water (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2001), 68.]
I know now that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his “Nazi” mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom. And wisdom is not a rote dogma, not ideology, not research material, not something we stuff into one another. The inner feeling that brings light to the eyes, the humor that helps create empathy, the fresh angles of vision that can waft into a room when hearts remain light, were gone; we had stopped creating the suppertime atmosphere in which wisdom could reveal itself. To stop creating this atmosphere is to move beyond help. [Ibid., 69]
I’ve heard it said that mental suffering is worse than physical pain: this moment proved it to me. The anguish of a three-year stalemate begun…in grief…, the uselessness of every word we’d hurled at each other, were so unendurable that his blow was pure relief. Even when I hit the floor and the physical damage registered, I stayed giddy with relief. [Ibid., 70]
As we look back on a year of joys and regrets, perhaps this story of a refugee family have a word of wisdom, and perhaps even salvation to offer us.
It is very hard for us to be freed from the demonic grasp of our old stories. I suspect this is true of both individuals and nations, as Herod’s role demonstrates all too tragically. In order to be set in a new direction, our stories must be revisited, and ultimately changed. And that is what this baby in all his vulnerability does. That is what this story does. That is what this way does. It takes us across borders we fear crossing, knowing that our salvation depends on it. It rewrites our lives toward peace, even as violence rages about us.
So take the journey. Be willing to look into the face of the one you fear. It just may be the journey that will give you your life back.