“Refugee Savior”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve Meditation


It’s a part of the Christmas story we don’t often read.  We usually hear about the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, his unusual proposition and her consenting response.  We usually hear about the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered, the too-full inn, the last-resort stay in the stable.  We usually hear about the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  The shepherds, wide-eyed and startled in the fields, hearing the good news from the angel and racing into town, breathless and smelling of lanolin.  The magi, journeying from afar with their exotic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then departing for their own country by another way, in defiance of Herod’s conniving.

But tonight we continued our reading just a few more verses, to include the very next part of the story.  After the magi departed, Matthew’s gospel says, Joseph had a dream in which an angel warned him to flee to Egypt with his family in order to escape from Herod’s wrath.  The story says that they did so, and they stayed there until Herod had died.  It’s all very matter-of-fact, just a few short sentences in Matthew’s telling.  And yet, I can’t help thinking that there must be more to the story.

I wonder…

Did Joseph wake in a sweat, breathing hard, the words of the angel ringing in his ears?  Those unimaginable words that threatened the tiny, perfect creature beside him, sleeping with his hands above his head in that classic newborn posture of surrender.

Did he listen closely for the reassuring whistling sound of breath moving through tiny nostrils?  Did he look carefully by the light of the moon and the stars to see that tiny chest rise and fall?  Did he touch, ever so gently, to make sure those round, perfect cheeks were still warm?

And I wonder…

Were there other things, aside from the angel’s terrifying words, that made Joseph take heed, that made the Holy Family take flight?  After all, one dream, no matter how vivid, is not likely to be enough to make a family with a newborn set out on a long journey, by foot, through the wilderness, to a place they do not know.  Did Joseph and Mary also know from hard experience what happens when men who hold too much power and too little compassion feel threatened?  Had they seen first-hand what happens to people whose very existence is a challenge to the logic of the powers that be—the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong gender, the wrong language or citizenship?  Had they gotten into trouble before for singing songs like the one Mary sang about the child she carried—songs about the strength of God’s arm, scattering the proud, tearing the powerful down from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away?

And I wonder…

Were they the only family that fled from Bethlehem in those days?  Had others heard of Herod’s machinations, of his genocidal intent against all children under the age of two in the region?  Did Joseph and Mary whisper to their neighbors, “It’s not safe for you and your babies here.”  To the other parents sitting in the circle at storytime at the library, “Do you have somewhere you can go?”  To the ones waiting open-armed at the bottom of the littlest slide at the playground, “Are there relatives who will take you in?”  To the ones buying diapers in the check-out line at Target, “We’re going to Egypt.  We heard we can find a better life there.”

What did they pack?  Food, spare clothes, blankets, of course.  The family Bible?  A treasured photograph?  The old, soft, threadbare shirt that the baby loved to clutch in the startlingly-strong grip of his tiny fist?  When Joseph boosted Mary onto the back of that tired old donkey, handed her the baby, took hold of the harness rope and started walking, did they look back at what they were leaving behind?

Who else went with them, moving quietly, under cover of darkness, through shadowed streets and out into the open country?  Did they travel together, a caravan of sorts, watching each other’s backs and tending each other’s wounds, sharing what they had and finding their way by moonlight toward the hope of a better future?

And I wonder…

Did those same angels that had visited so many in Bethlehem—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds in the fields, the magi on their camels—did those same angels accompany that caravan on its southwesterly journey, just as the Divine Presence had gone before and behind the Israelites on their long-ago northeasterly journey from Egypt into the Promised Land?

How did they survive the journey?  It is a long way from Bethlehem to Egypt.  Was it manna in the wilderness again?  Or was it that those same accompanying angels visited the villages the refugees would pass, and inspired their inhabitants to help, to offer what hospitality they could to the caravan as it passed by?  Did the villagers, moved by dreams and visitations of their own, come out to the edge of town with carefully-wrapped packages of warm pita and roast lamb, with sacks of dates and olives, with jugs of fresh water and sweet mulled wine?  Did Mary and Joseph and Jesus spend a few nights resting in another borrowed barn, just as they had done in Bethlehem a lifetime ago, while they washed their dirty blankets and mended their torn clothes and rested their aching feet?

And I wonder…

When they came to the edge of Herod’s domain, when they reached the Egyptian border, what did they find?  Was there a wall?  Steel slats?  Barbed wire and soldiers?  Or did the angel Gabriel continue to go before them, preparing the way?  Did they find jugs of water left by merciful strangers to keep them and their children from dying of dehydration?  Did someone appear to guide them to a safe house and help them find a place to stay?  Did a construction foreman recognize Joseph’s carpentry skills and agree to pay this foreigner under the table so he could afford to put a roof over the baby’s head?

And when the time came for them to return home, who helped them then?  Did they travel by the same route?  Did anyone remember them?  Did anyone recognize the baby’s dimples and marvel at how he had grown since last they passed that way?  Who welcomed them when they arrived home in Nazareth, probably quite a bit worse for the wear?

And I wonder…

How much of his early childhood did Jesus remember?  How did his parents tell him this part of their story?  How did the refugee journey of his family shape him—his beliefs, his priorities, his fundamental commitments, his teachings, his actions?

And how must it also shape us?

How might we who claim his name learn to recognize the One we follow in the face of those who embark on perilous journeys far from home in search of a safer future for their children?

How might we learn to hear the voices of the accompanying angels, calling us to offer what hospitality we can?

How might we learn to recognize that when we find ourselves traveling wilderness roads, we never do so alone, but always in the company of our refugee Savior?

And how might we partner with God in building a realm where such exoduses are no longer necessary, where no child is threatened by the whims of power-hungry tyrants, where no one need flee under cover of night, where the brightness of God’s glory will dawn at last upon all the weary world, and heaven and nature sing?


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