Happy new year, everybody. On Friday I had to find my 2016 Church Ordo Kalendar, which orders the days of year in feasts and fasts, those great days of the Church on which we either feast in celebration of something or fast in preparation for something, usually another feast. There is more than one Kalendar a priest and his parish can follow, in fact there are several. They rarely contradict each other; usually one is just more complete than the other, or more interestingly, one might reflect more cultural assumptions than the other. For instance, I can’t imagine a Church Kalendar marketed to Hispanic congregations which didn’t include the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which we in the Episcopal Church don’t technically celebrate. The feast of the Holy Family is big in Mediterranean circles, and it’s either celebrated the Sunday after Christmas or the Sunday after the Epiphany. Episcopalians don’t celebrate it at all, except we do in a sneaky way, as we put the readings for Holy Family on the second Sunday after Christmas, smack dab in the middle.
When we hear the term “Holy Family”, at least when I do, it conjures up images of Joseph and Mary and Jesus close together, maybe hugging a bit, warm and safe and protected by oxen and angels. Most images of the Holy Family have them standing, Mary holding Jesus, who was apparently remarkably sentient for a baby, much of the time Jesus has a hand up in blessing, a priest from birth. But today’s Gospel reading from Matthew paints a bleaker image.
What we get today is the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Matthew’s story (is short but) was much elaborated in the New Testament apocrypha, with, for example, palm trees bowing before the infant Jesus, the beasts of the desert paying him homage, and an encounter with the two thieves who would later be crucified alongside Jesus.”1
The real flight to Egypt was probably not as magical, no more magical than the average refugee story can be. There are refugee stories in my family; refugees driven from their homes by war, by a conquering force, forces that cannot be trusted to treat people like people. And so Herod scares me. I can imagine what it must be like for the king to want to kill you, and I know people who don’t have to imagine it. Poor Joseph, he trusts the Lord and takes Mary and Jesus as his own, and now his family, his holy family, is marked for death, and the only place to go is, heaven help them, Egypt.
Well, at least they had Egypt. As our bishop reminded us in his message this week, “It is estimated that there are nearly 60 million “displaced” persons in the world today. Of these, 20 million are refugees, that is, those who have been forced to flee their homes because of concerns for safety – war, persecution, natural disaster. Of the 20 million refugees half are children. 4 million of the world’s refugees today have fled Syria. The plight of today’s refugees -from Syria, from Iraq and other parts of the world, should call forth from people of faith a response of compassion. Instead, in too many instances, the instinctive reaction has been one of fear. This fear is somewhat understandable.”
Bishop Stokes goes on to say that “Our Christian faith always demands that we confront our fears in the face of injustice and oppression of any kind. This is not naiveté on our part. It is a recognition that we cannot succumb to fear without our humanity and our faith becoming fundamentally compromised.”2
I’ve been asked almost every day what the Christian response to the present refugee crisis might be, and I’m still forming that response. I’m not an advocate of throwing open the gates willy-nilly, but we do have a responsibility to defeat the enemy and care for the widow and the orphan, the displaced and unwanted. This part of the Church Calendar helps us to form our thoughts: the Holy Family trekking to Bethlehem to pay taxes, being driven from their home by evil forces, the Holy Innocents being slaughtered; these should inform our thoughts.
I’m reminded in these times that the Apostle Paul told us that our Faith does not make us weak; that Christianity is not for the timid. “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love,” Paul wrote to Timothy. So if we have God’s Spirit inside of us, a Spirit of power and love, what should our response be?
2From Bishop Stokes’ message in Good News in the Garden State, December 31, 2015.