“So he got up, took the child and his mother and left for Egypt.” Matthew 2: 13
As we begin a New Year, a year that will undoubtedly have many ups and downs. What do we learn from the experiences of the Holy Family?
Mary and Joseph make the difficult journey down to Bethlehem filled with fear and apprehension and Mary goes through a childbirth that would have not been easy in the circumstances. Then there is this wonderful high point. A group of dirty, unkempt shepherds, men who were coarse and out on the edge of society, have a vision of angels and arrive to offer worship to this child. They leave changed men and go out telling people about their experiences. Mary we are told, in Saint Luke Chapter 2 Verse 19,”treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
When we are blessed with good times, when all is well, are we thankful? Do we treasure such moments? Do we ponder them in our hearts?
The high point of the holy night passes and life returns to normal. Joseph decides not to return home immediately and they stay on in Bethlehem, finding accommodation once the crowds gathered for the census have left. Joseph would have worked for their keep and Mary would have taken on the role of a traditional Jewish mother. They are happy with their ordinary lives.
When we have ordinary days, do we think about them? Do we realize that we have lives which most people in our world would envy?
Then the curve goes upwards again – the Magi arrive. The arrival of Gentiles in a traditional Jewish household would have been an event in itself. The Jews had strict rules about mixing with non-Jews. These weren’t ordinary Gentiles from nearby. They were foreigners from a distant place. Possibly followers of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, they see the appearance of a comet or the congruence of two planets as indicative of some great event. They travel hundreds of miles to be in the house to see this baby. If Mary had treasured memories of the visit of the shepherds, imagine how she felt at the arrival of these exotic strangers. In times when most people travelled no more than a few miles from the place in which they had been born and grown up, this visit would have been a wonderfully exciting moment.
Many people in Jesus’ time might have been uncertain about the arrival of the Magi, but Mary preserves the story and passes it on. What are we like in uncertain moments? Do we retreat from opportunities, or do we have confidence in God?
The top of the curve is reached and things then turn downwards rapidly. Joseph receives an angelic message to gather his family together and to run for Egypt. Can we imagine the moment? The dark, stillness of the night and Joseph whispering to Mary to gather a few things together and to wrap the baby warmly because they must leave. Can we imagine the alarm in Mary’s heart as they set out into the cold darkness, passing unlit houses in which people slept and heading into strange and alien territory?
Mary and Joseph must rely on their faith to sustain them on the journey. If we go through bad times in the coming year, there may be moments when our faith is all that we have.
It must have seemed that things were improving again. Mary and Joseph head down into Egypt and probably find a place to stay in one of the small Jewish communities that were scattered around the shores of the Mediterranean, there were thousands of Jews in the city of Alexandria. Outside of Judea they were safe. News travelled slowly. Jews who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have heard of Herod but he had no power outside of the small province in which he exercised a violent rule.
Mary and Joseph must have felt a sense of relief at having avoided danger. Many Christians in our world face danger on a daily basis, do we ever appreciate the country in which we live? Do we ever appreciate that we live in safety?
Herod’s murder of baby boys in Bethlehem was quite consistent with his behaviour in the closing years of his life. He contracted an illness which brought increasingly severe pain and mental instability. He trusted no-one. He had had ten wives, fifteen children, and innumerable grandchildren. It is known that he had had at least one of his wives and three of his sons executed. The news of the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem must have marked a very deep low point for Mary and Joseph when the news filtered through to the community in which they were living. Perhaps the children of friends they had made during their stay there would have been among the victims. The words from the prophet Jeremiah used by Saint Matthew in Chapter 2 Verse 18 capture the sheer desolation of the moment in Bethlehem, “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Sometimes there are moments of desolation, moments without explanation, moments when no comfort is possible. In such moments, all we can do is to trust that God is there.
The cycle again turns. Joseph again receives word to set out on a journey. Matthew’s readers would not have missed the point of a new leader of God’s people coming out of Egypt. Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt to escape the power of Pharaoh. This new leader of God’s people will lead people to escape the power of death. Joseph’s first inclination is to return to Judea, perhaps back to Bethlehem where they had stayed for some time after Jesus was born. They hear that Archelaus, one of the favoured sons of Herod is ruling in Judea, so they make the longer journey back to Nazareth. Whoever passed this part of the story on to Matthew seems unaware that Nazareth was where the journeying began – the circle has been completed. The cycle returns to its starting point.
There are years that can seem like circles, we finish where we began, but if those years are years spent with God, we will remember them as blessed times.
Saint John Chapter 1 Verse 14 tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” It tells us that God is not far away and that God understands all our ups and downs.
In 2017, may we be mindful of God’s presence, in the good times; in the bad times; and in the ordinary times.