This year's lectionary sequence for those on the Revised Common Lectionary is the kind of text that prompts pastors to take a vacation Sunday. After all the cuteness of the Christmas Eve pageant, or the resplendent beauty of the lessons & carols service, or whatever your church did on that occasion, for this Sunday you get a text on mass murder.
A king with a paranoid and violent past, which tendencies were only reinforced by advancing years and declining health, needed little prompting to react with an act of violence. Not only had those visiting scholar/astrologers put about this business about a newly-born king (and Herod knew he had no brand-new descendants in cribs anywhere about), they had also failed to play along with Herod's scheme to eliminate this new threat. They were supposed to report to him, those scoundrels. They were supposed to tell him where this upstart infant was. Somehow, they got away without reporting back to Herod.
Those damned prophecies went on and on about someone coming, someone who would be bad news for people in power. Herod believed in knowing his potential enemies, and kept scholars around who could interpret these hoary old prophetic texts of this crazy tribe of people in this backwater of the Roman Empire. When those Eastern visitors showed up spouting this business about a child born "king of the Jews" and a star somehow connected to it, Herod wasted no time putting his own research staff to work on the problem. They'd tell him what he need to know. They knew how their bread was buttered, and most likely they knew where their graves were dug.
In the meantime Herod brooded. Matthew quaintly tells us that "all of Jerusalem" also brooded with him. It would be a mistake to take this as some kind of sign of sympathy. When a king with Herod's track record of eliminating enemies or potential enemies or imagined enemies got upset, you were upset, because you never knew if you might be one of those enemies or potential enemies or imagined enemies.
Herod's research department finally came through with a location, a backwater in the backwater named Bethlehem. Herod sent the visitors on their way, with a polite but firm reminder that they should stop by on their way home and tell him all about this newborn king, and then went back to nursing his ailments and his grudges.
They had stiffed him.
Too much time had passed with no sign of the visitors. Who knew what was up with that infant usurper now? He put his research department to work again: how old might that child king of the Jews be at this point? Armed with their answers, he engaged in about as gruesome and vile an act as the Bible records (and it records plenty of gruesome and vile acts).
A boy? Born in Bethlehem? Up to age two? Kill it.
Kill them all.
The dream angels got to work again. Having warned Joseph not to put away his pregnant wife, and redirected those visitors away from Jerusalem, they had more dream work to do. Joseph needed to get his newly-enhanced family in gear and get them out of Bethlehem. Death was coming, and it was not this child's time to suffer it.
But really, was it time for any child in Bethelehem to suffer the kind of death Herod had in mind? Was it time for countless Rachels to be set to weeping for their no-more children? But it is not our place to wonder at Herod's evil. Political agendas continue to kill children, even in our enlightened day, do they not?
But for Joseph and family, the angel warning must have seemed ominous itself. Flee to ... Egypt? Egypt, of all places? Joseph, whom Matthew takes great pains to place in a line of descent all the way back to Abraham, through Judah the son of Jacob, would know all about his people's history with Egypt, the ancient famine refuge-turned-enslavement empire of the Hebrew people. A place like that was where someone like Joseph would have no connection, no relations, no home whatsoever. Of course you were going -- the king wanted to kill your son (never mind all that crazy business with Holy Spirit pregnancies and the gaggle of shepherds who showed up when your son was born; this is my son and the king does not get to kill him, not if I and these strange dream angels have anything to do with it) -- but how were you going to survive in Egypt? And for how long? And how would we know when, or even if, it was safe to come back? But still, you went, so Joseph and Mary and the infant-toddler aged Jesus took flight into Egypt.
Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c.1597
So, for a few years of his childhood, the one Christians call the Messiah, Son of Man, King of Kings, all those grand and glorious titles, was essentially a fugitive from justice -- or at least one sick, paranoid king's idea of justice.
Adam Elsheimer, The Flight Into Egypt, 1609
And again, we dare not judge. The refugee is not a rare enough figure in our time for us to judge. And it doesn't take a sick old king to set families to flight. The number of refugees in flight from Syria is in millions and escalating constantly.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight Into Egypt, ca.1916-22
The artist above, Henry O. Tanner, apparently found the theme of the Holy Family's flight resonant with his own life; he created about fifteen different works on that theme. Was it the racism he experienced in his native US, racism which eventually drove him to relocate to Paris, that caused the image to force its way into his mind again and again?
Eventually the family got one more dream angel alert, telling them it was okay to return from Egypt, and then one more, suggesting Galilee as a nice alternative to Judea. Thus, according to Matthew's account, the child came to grow up in Nazareth. Nazareth was apparently the kind of place people made fun of, if Nathanael's pithy putdown in John 1 ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") is to be believed. Still, it was outside the reach of the late Herod or any of the late Herod's descendants, which was good enough. The fugitive Messiah had a home, at last.
That child would grow up, and again take to wandering. Approximately the last three or so years of his life were spent as an itinerant rabbi, preaching with particular vehemence a good news about enough for the poor, the release of captives, sight for the blind and hearing for the deaf, about justice for everyone instead of law for those who could afford it. How much the fugitive childhood remained in the mind of the itinerant preacher, we cannot know.
Of course, this story was preached today, if it was at all, to congregations most likely far emptier than normal, and certainly less full than this past Tuesday night. Again congregation size becomes a pretty good metaphor; very few would be, or could be there for the family in flight.
Unlike last week's rant, this week's events don't quite set me off the same way. Yeah, my life has known disruption, but I can't say I've ever even remotely felt like a refugee, or an exile, or a fugitive. Perhaps having this "text of terror" dropped in our laps so soon after our cute little Christmases is exactly about disrupting the rather complacent and prettified way we do Christmas. In truth, I'm not sure we can do justice to the story; how do we possibly capture the horror of such a slaughter as Herod enacted in his paranoia and fear? Or how do we possibly capture the panic of the family's emergency evacuation to a strange and fearful place to escape something even stranger and more fearful? And what place does it hold in our Christmas? What does such a story do to our manger scenes and children's sermons?
Can we, in our hearts, ride with the fugitive child? Can we see that refugee child in the countless millions of refugees all across our world?