Sermon January 2 2022 Flight into Egypt Rev. Betsy Hogan
Here's what I wish we had in our scriptures. Joseph and Mary, The Egypt Years.
Everything that happened AFTER the dramatic escape that's described in the gospel of Matthew. AFTER the onslaught of Herod's terrifying indiscriminate violence, the panic of that clear presenting danger, the desperation and fear and single-minded focus on keeping their child safe, whatever it takes, whatever's necessary.
Because the fear, and the focus, THAT we can understand. Some of us may know it in our bones as surely as the woman pictured in Cogniet's famous painting of the Massacre of the Innocents, from our own experience of fleeing unleashed violence or evacuating in advance of fire –
But I think all of us have had a sense of it, from the first months of this pandemic. When we simply didn't know how things were going to be, beyond the fact of a clear presenting danger, and so there WAS the simplicity of that clarity. The focus COULD be single-minded – here's what matters, here's what doesn't –
And if we're all going to stay the blazes home, then here's the CERB, here's the tech, payroll support, cap the rents, it's all rolled out with breathtaking speed –
Here's what's needed, here's what's right. Fear, focus, clarity, action.
THAT we can understand, in contemplating Joseph and Mary's flight into Egypt. Joseph may, as usual, be getting all his updates from angels speaking to him in dreams, but the single-minded urgency with which he and Mary pack up a newborn, toss those plans to return home to Nazareth, and instead do what has to be done to keep the child safe. THAT we get. The flight into Egypt.
But then what? Is this just where they live now? Because sure, it's perfectly possible that during "Joseph and Mary: The Egypt Years" there are regular weekly updates from angels speaking to Joseph in dreams – I mean, if we're going with the angels speaking in dreams as the medium of communication, then anything's possible –
But on the face of it, at least, according to what we're TOLD about "Joseph and Mary: The Egypt Years" in the gospel of Matthew – which is precisely nothing –
There's no indication they ever knew they'd be going back. There's no indication they ever knew they'd get to return. They've been warned about danger, they've escaped into Egypt, and WE know that eventually they'll get to return – but that space between those sentences in Matthew's gospel actually last months and months, and well over a year, and maybe even two.
That space between those two sentences in Matthew's gospel is Joseph and Mary, the Egypt years – and THAT'S what I wish we knew about.
Not just the fear and the focus and the flight – but what came next. Because we know that ultimately they didn't return to Israel and to their home in Nazareth until Herod died. So does that mean that as long as he was alive the danger remained obvious?
Because it's just as possible that in fact it didn't. That there were times when they thought maybe things had settled down and they could go back – only to then hear of renewed danger.
So how did they cope? How did they approach this sudden "refugee status", far from home in Egypt? Did they lean into it from the start, assuming it was permanent? It occurred to me in thinking about this story that when we hear about people who come to Canada as refugees – say, from a place like Syria in conditions of violent civil war – we DO sort of assume that there isn't ever going to be a time when they can go back.
But that demands of those involved a particular mindset – an acceptance of the sudden new normal as permanent. And it'd be quite a different mindset than that which might arise if somehow there remains a lingering hope that it's all just temporary.
So did Joseph and Mary lean into it, with that kind of mentality of "bloom where you're planted"? Or were the Egypt years fraught with a constant feeling of being in limbo, unrooted, yearning for normalcy and unwilling to say out loud "this is what it looks like now".
We just don't know. And I wish we did. I wish we knew how they managed, how they coped – when the big drama's subsided into just "you've got to be kidding me – still?" and months and months later, still?
And MORE months and months later, and seriously?
I wish we knew how they dealt with it. And kept their hope. And kept their faith.
Because they did. Somehow, through all that protracted exhausting limbo time in Egypt, they kept their hope. They kept their faith. That what WAS wouldn’t always be.
Until, at long last, the angel brings good news. And they can go home.
Which brings us to a weird little detail that I don't think I'd really registered before that sets Matthew's gospel up against Luke's. Because Luke assumes from the beginning that Joseph was already living in Nazareth. Luke has Joseph and Mary travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for that census that requires everyone to go back to their home towns.
But Matthew doesn't. Matthew lands Joseph and Mary in Nazareth AFTER their flight into Egypt. And Matthew ascribes it NOT to being the obvious place to which they return because that's where they'd been living before – but instead as the result of one more experience of danger, after in theory the danger has passed.
The angel brings good news. Herod has died, and so now it's theoretically safe to return – except not so fast, no it isn't, and so it's THEN, Matthew tells us, that Joseph and Mary keep on moving and wind up in Nazareth.
Which seems unnecessarily complicated, though it's easily explained by Luke just wrongly assuming they'd been living there in the first place.
But I find what it speaks to in this particular moment is something that, honestly, I find weirdly reassuring in the midst of all this. Because it could have been – we could have had – a story of the flight into Egypt that's the big drama and the fear and the focus and the action –
and then it's all over, and they come home again, all good.Yes, I could wish we knew more about The Egypt Years, because frankly they were probably exhausting and it'd be nice to know how Joseph and Mary coped, but it could have been – and we could have had – the Big Danger and then the Resolution. All tied up in a bow and it's done.
But that's not how the story ends. Instead, weirdly, strikingly, there's this one more experience of danger, after in theory the danger has passed – only THIS time, according to the angel who brings messages to Joseph in his dreams, it's all good with just some pretty minor precautions. They just have to move to Nazareth, and it'll all be fine. And they do.
And we could just stop there, just recognizing and being strengthened by how firmly they've kept their faith throughout it all, and maintained their hope that what WAS wouldn't always be. That all things are possible with God, and with God all things are possible.
But I think there's a word for us here more specifically. In this moment when we're kneedeep in one more experience of danger, after in theory the danger has passed, when -- just like Joseph and Mary MUST have done -- we're really struggling with how suddenly it's apparently all good with just some pretty minor precautions.
Because it HAD to have surprised them. That sudden shift in risk assessment. Trusting and faithful they absolutely were, but it had to have been unsettling. Even frightening. It can't have been easy to let go of one perspective on a clear and present danger, and replace it with a completely different way of thinking about that clear and present danger – as now just a matter for a few precautions and relative calm.
It must have been hard. To just settle into Nazareth, like this danger from the new ruler is somehow different from the danger from the old ruler that sent them fleeing across the border into Egypt.
Because I'm sure it didn't FEEL different. Not at first, not when it's a matter of life and death. I suspect it took time. But I do find this part of the story weirdly reassuring. Because where we are right now is at exactly that same moment of being dragged from one perspective on a danger to a new perspective on that danger, and it IS hard.
But we look at Joseph and Mary, and it's doable. It'll take time, and we could be forgiven for wishing that Matthew'd included even a line or two of "Joseph and Mary: A New Start in Nazareth" to give us a sense of HOW they inched their way into that new perspective – but they got there.
And we will too. With God all things are possible. Amen.