In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading sets before us the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, in the face of the tyranny of Herod. Herod was the Jewish King – a puppet king appointed by the Romans. And therefore, when he hears from the Magi about the birth of Jesus – “born King of the Jews” (Matthew 2.2) – he gets nervous, thinking that Jesus is a potential rival, a threat to his position.
This leads to the sorry episode that we commemorate liturgically on Dec. 28 – the massacre of the Holy Innocents. When the Magi tell Herod that the newborn king is from Bethlehem, Herod orders all the male children under two-years-old in Bethlehem to be killed. If you were paying close attention, you will have noticed that there were verses omitted from today’s Gospel reading. As follows (Matthew 2.16-18):
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“ ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.’ ”
But today’s Gospel lesson tells us that Joseph was warned of the danger in a dream, and that the Holy Family fled to Egypt, and so the infant Jesus was spared. Note the irony in all of this. The one who came to save mankind begins his life by being saved himself, from one very wicked man. The one who came to die in the place of the children of men begins his life with all the male children in the region of Bethlehem being killed in his place.
Be that as it may, Matthew notes that when Herod dies, Joseph hears about it, and brings Mary and Jesus back from Egypt, so fulfilling the prophecy from Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” (Hosea 11.1).
I want to talk a little bit about the spiritual significance of the flight of the holy family to Egypt. What does it show us?
First of all, it shows us God’s preference for the poor, the anonymous, the humble, and the small. This is the tenor of the Gospels throughout, and these have been hallmarks of what is most integrally “Christian” all along: poverty, anonymity, humility, smallness. In fact, last week in the “Rector’s Study Group,” we came in our discussion of Fr. Hopko’s “55 Maxims for Christian Living” to maxim number 31: “Be simple, hidden, quiet, and small.” The holy family’s flight to Egypt exemplifies this maxim, I think. They are simple, hidden, quiet, and small. And it’s an especially good thing they were hidden and quiet, otherwise Herod might have found them.
But its not just for practical reasons that we have a preference for being like the holy family: simple, hidden, quiet, and small. Its also because living this way is consistent with what we profess to believe: that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, and that our orientation, our purpose, our values, are not to be found here. It shows that we are oriented toward heaven, and therefore away from the world – away from loud music, and partying, and money, and all the rest – the source of things one would have found in Herod’s court – the sorts of things one finds everywhere today. But in contrast, our joy comes from heaven. Our purpose comes from heaven. We are about heaven’s business, come what may.
During the first centuries of Christianity, when the Roman authorities were persecuting Christians – arresting them, and sometimes killing them – a coda for how Christians are to behave in the face of persecution was developed. Christians were forbidden to seek martyrdom. This was first of all because Christians must always be life-affirming, and the affirmation of life surely must begin with recognizing the inviolability of my own life; recognizing that I didn’t give myself life, and that therefore the prerogative to take life from myself does not rightfully belong to me either. Our lives are in God’s hands. Always were; always will be. And its incumbent upon us to live this way. And this also means that we should not put ourselves needlessly into dangerous situations – situations that could lead to our being killed or injured. We should neither harm, nor needlessly RISK harming our own bodies.
The accounts of the early martyrs are filled with stories that make this point. About how some who violated this coda wound up apostatizing when they were put in the dock or faced with torture. And also about how the true martyrs never sought to be martyred, although they accepted it bravely when it was unavoidable. Polycarp, for example, the aged bishop of Smyrna, quietly went hiding from house to house when he heard that the authorities were looking to arrest him, until he was too tired to keep running, and finally they caught him and killed him. He didn’t run because he was scared – on the contrary: it was because he honored the sanctity of his own life as a gift from God, and because he had been entrusted with a vocation to fulfill, as the leader of the Christian community, and he meant to keep doing it as long as he could. And he remained strong to the very end, and sang praises to God when they finally put him in the fire.
This kind way of living is also in keeping with what our Lord said about violence: “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (Matt. 5.39). And Paul said the same thing. Christians aren’t supposed to return violence with violence, but to “overcome evil with good,” (Rom. 12.21). Granted, sometimes there’s no choice, and this is why the Church has a so-called “just war tradition” – to which we have recourse especially when we find ourselves in positions of power and are thus in a position to help people who can’t help themselves.
But it must be emphasized that the Christian commitment to non-violence, to always affirming the dignity of all human life, even the lives of our enemies, from the moment of conception until natural death – we don’t teach it and believe it and seek to live it, out of cowardice or weakness. Our commitment to non-violence should be muscular and robust and provocative. Bp. Robert Barron gave three examples (in his “Catholicism” series) of this that I would like to relate them to you – three examples that really show up how we can live-out what we see in the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt – getting on with our vocation in small and humble and non-violent, but at the same time muscular and provocative ways, in the face of the world’s evil.
The first is of Desmond Tutu, sometime Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, in South Africa. During apartheid, when Tutu was a priest, he was walking along a narrow sidewalk when a white man, a well-known racist, came walking in the other direction. They stopped when they reached each other, and the white man said, “I don’t step aside for gorillas.” Fr. Tutu stepped off of the sidewalk into the mud and gestured for the man to continue on, and said, “I do.”
The second one is Mother Teresa. Mother once took a poor, malnourished child in her arms in Calcutta, and went to a bakery to beg the owner for some bread. The man behind the counter spat in her face. Mother wiped the spit off of her face and said, “Thank you for that gift for me, now how about something for this child?” Nor can one forget how Mother Teresa was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard in 1982. She got up on stage and everyone was expecting her to speak about her famous work among the poor and hungry, and instead she spoke at length about hunger for the Word of God. She condemned abortion and went on and on about purity and chastity as great gifts for young people, and about the integrity of the family in our individualistic world. She concluded by saying: “My prayer for you is that you grow in that love for each other. That you grow in that likeness of Christ, in that holiness of Christ. Holiness is not the luxury of the few; it is a simple duty for you and for me.” Amazing.
The third example is Pope John Paul II. In June of 1979 he went to visit Poland, his native country, which was then under repressive communist rule. The communist government was atheist, and openly hostile to Christianity. The government calculated that either the pope would abide by their rules during his visit, and thus set an example for the people to follow, making them more passive and governable; or he would spark an uprising, and the government could crush it and blame the pope for the suffering. They didn’t foresee what actually happened. People came out to see the pope by the millions. He celebrated mass on the vigil of Pentecost in Victory Square in Warsaw before a crowd of an estimated three million people. He preached about Christian solidarity in the face of oppression, and at the end of his homily, the crowd began to chant “We want God! We want God!” and the chanting went on and on for several minutes, as the pope smiled in the face of his bewildered government handlers. One author writes that Pope John Paul…
“…led the Polish people to desert their rulers by affirming solidarity with one another. The Communists managed to hold on as despots a decade longer. But as political leaders, they were finished. Visiting his native Poland in 1979, Pope John Paul II struck what turned out to be a mortal blow to its Communist regime, to the Soviet Empire, [and] ultimately to Communism.” (“Political Warfare: A Set of Means for Achieving Political Ends,” by Angelo M. Codevilla)
This is the muscular non-violence of Jesus’ gospel. This is what Mary and Joseph show us by getting on with their vocation and taking the infant Jesus to Egypt, not out of cowardice, but out of faith in God’s promises, even in the face of harassment and deprivation and danger. And this is what we are call called to do as disciples of Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.