I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time remembering what day it is between Christmas and New Year’s. Celebrations, gathering with family and friends, going in to work partial days, working from home, eating and sleeping at odd times – it all seems about right for the birth of a new baby. As we celebrate Christmas, we long to linger there by the manger. Mary and Joseph probably would appreciate our discombobulation – with a newborn, days and nights were surely confused for them too. You know how it is when you have a baby – time seems to lose its form – what day was it, anyway, that the wise men came to visit?
Joseph had dozed off and as he slept, he had a dream – suddenly he was wide awake. “Mary, pack up. We have to go – NOW.” Suddenly our lingering at the manger, thoughts of playing with the baby are cut short. Peaceful refrains of silent night turn to furtive flight.
Frederick Beuchner once wrote, “We have tried to make [Christmas] habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event itself is indeed…all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading. The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching,” our beautiful, or sweet. It is not lullabies and nurseries designed by interior decorators. This baby doesn’t cry for us to change him, he cries for us to change.
God has come to dwell with us and real life has put a price on his head before he can hold it up for himself. Still innocent, less than two, not even talking, and it is clear that he will not be exempt from evil, from pain, from suffering; he will be a refugee, he will know life in exile. He will narrowly escape mass execution, leaving a blood bath of babies in his wake. The Bethlehem air that was so recently filled with a newborn’s cry is now is filled with the terrible sound of parents wailing.
The prophet Jeremiah told of a voice heard, “lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel, [ancestral mother of three of the tribes of Israel] weeps for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not (Jeremiah 31:15).” How can this be part of the story of Christmas? Matthew, in telling the story, is emphasizing the parallels between Jesus, the One who fulfills the law, who goes beyond the law to the Spirit of the law, and Moses, the one who delivered the law.
• When Moses was born, Egypt’s king had ordered the death of every new born Jewish boy in the land. When Jesus was born, King Herod ordered the death of every infant and toddler boy in Bethlehem.
• Moses and Jesus both escaped slaughter by the providence of God who had larger plans for them.
• Moses the liberator led his people out of Egypt under the cover of darkness to make their escape. Joseph takes Mary and the baby in the middle of the night into Egypt to make their escape.
• When the time was ripe, Moses led his people out of Egypt on the way to the Promised Land. Joseph, too, waited until God told him the time was ripe to leave Egypt with Mary and Jesus and go back home to the Promised Land.
These parallels are important to Matthew because until the birth of Jesus, Moses was the most important figure in the history of the Hebrew people. Now, One is born whose greatness exceeds even that of Moses; and he has come to deliver us.
Perhaps we want to linger by the manger because we fear in reality that he hasn’t delivered us. I read an article this week about people complaining that the news included bad news over Christmas. We want to huddle in the dark cave and be surrounded by his light a little longer, to smile into his baby face and not know what day it is.
Jesus has delivered us; it just isn’t what we expected. 26 million people are refugees in the world today. 26 million people looked around at their homes and their possessions and then looked at the political situation where they lived and decided it would be better to leave everything, destination unknown. 70,000 children have entered our country as a result and are being held in detention centers. Jesus doesn’t come to deliver us from suffering.
And Jesus doesn’t come to deliver us from questions. Why did God allow Herod to kill all those other children? A Catholic priest, Ernesto Cardinal, was teaching the Bible to natives on the islands of Solintename in Nicarauga. When he told the story of the Flight to Egypt, one local artist painted a picture of the scene, as though it had happened there. His rendering of the scene showed green-uniformed soldiers with AK-47s, shooting babies, and tying up the men with the lush vegetation of the island in the background. In the foreground are dead babies, cackling soldiers, and sobbing women. Why does God continue to allow our world to look like this?
Jesus didn’t come to deliver us from our suffering. He didn’t come to deliver us from our questions about why suffering happens. Jesus came to deliver us from our exile. Jesus came to deliver us from our separation from God, to be with us in our lives, to be with us in our suffering, and to transform our hearts so that what breaks God’s heart would break ours; so that we would end suffering.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright observes that there was “No point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery; no point having an easy life, when the world suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is.”
This passage is often titled the “Flight to Egypt,” but I don’t think that title captures the horror and fright of the journey. Under the cover of darkness, Mary and Joseph set out, whispering to the baby not to cry, willing themselves to keep going through the nights and hiding behind sand dunes by day, hoping no one would discover them. I wonder how long it was before they ran out of water. 430 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt – at little farther than from here to New Orleans, about the same distance as walking to Gatlinburg – my phone says it will take 5 days and 19 hours – and it’s through the desert unless they made their way to the Mediterranean Sea and followed its shores.
Jill Duffield, the editor of Presbyterian Outlook, writes of the flight, “Now we know without question that our God stands on the side of the vulnerable, the poor, the weak, the exploited, the infants born with no worldly goods in places fraught with chaos, ruled by genocidal dictators, born in borrowed cradles, swaddled in scraps of fabric and pressed to the chest of terrified parents trying to keep them alive at all costs.”
And if we want to follow Jesus home from exile, we will stand with them too.