Christmas is a time of gathering, of being at home with family and friends, amidst the familiar. It’s a happy time, full of expectancy and gratitude. But Christmas isn’t always that way. Neither was it for the Christ Child.
When we reflect on the Christmas story we often think about Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels proclaiming the Savior’s birth, the child in a feeding trough, the magi’s journey to Bethlehem. All of these events have deep meaning; they evoke a reverence and wonder such as Mary had, who “pondered and treasured these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Often overlooked, however, is that part of the Christmas story when God’s angel appears to Joseph in a dream and instructs him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. Only after Herod dies are they instructed to return to Israel, and that by a rather circuitous route (Matt. 2:13–23).
We don’t know why God wanted the Holy Family to flee to Egypt, of all places, although we do know that a large Jewish community lived there at that time. Joseph and Mary, we surmise, would have been welcomed there. We also know that Egypt had been a safe haven early on in Jewish history. Abraham had gone there to escape famine, as had Jacob and his sons. Much later on, Egypt became a place of political refuge.
For Matthew the significance of Egypt lay in the fact that it fulfilled what the prophet Hosea had said hundreds of year earlier, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In the Bible, Egypt not only provided sanctuary for God’s people, but more importantly, it was where God liberated the Hebrews to become a distinct people. So, according to Matthew, Jesus represents Israel. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it, “Jesus grants the definite Exodus.…Jesus, the true Son, himself went into ‘exile’ in a very deep sense, in order to lead all of us home from exile” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 111).
What possible meaning does the story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt have for us today?
First, the Holy Family found refuge. They were welcomed. Today, too, there are countless families who seek refuge. We need not look far. What are we doing to receive them? Do we even know who they are?
Secondly, for those who are displaced, who are far from home, this story should give hope. Many will find themselves in a foreign land this Christmas, often because of violence, natural disaster, or economic necessity. Others will spend Christmas on a military base or in a prison cell or homeless shelter. Still others are inwardly alienated, estranged from family and friends or feeling far from God. At such times it is tempting to despair, to feel alone or abandoned. But right here, the gospel tells us, in these places of exile both literal and figurative, God’s redeeming love breaks in.
We do not know what Joseph, Mary, and Jesus experienced in Egypt. Yet Egypt was God’s provision – a gift of protection from the dastardly scheme of Herod. Moreover, the angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph right there. God was not far off. And displacement did not derail God’s plan to save the world.
Later, as an adult, Jesus would again find himself “exiled,” several times in fact. Each time, however, God had a purpose. Jesus emerged from the wilderness of temptation, tested but also prepared to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom in power, healing the sick. Not long after that, Jesus was run out of his hometown, Nazareth. Yet, this indignity afforded him opportunity to reach greater numbers of people – the poor and downcast, those dwelling in darkness. And then, at the end of his life, Jesus underwent the shame and cruelty of crucifixion – this time utterly abandoned, exiled in a tomb. But this too was not the end. Jesus would rise from the grave in victory and pour out his spirit on his followers, empowering them to fearlessly spread the gospel of new life throughout the world.
In Jesus’ life, from the manger to the cross, exile was never the end; it was always God’s route toward a greater work.
As followers of the Lowly One, we will at times find ourselves in places we don’t belong, going in the opposite direction from the one God has in mind for us. We may feel vulnerable and unsettled, stranded in foreign landscapes. Yet the Christ Child is as present in these places as he was in the arms of Mary surrounded by shepherds and angels. In all these places, God is there – Immanuel, “God with us.” He can use our times of exile to prepare us for something greater. His redemptive love is always near.