1st Sunday after Christmas
by Fr. Jack McArdle
GOSPEL : MATTHEW 2:13-15, 19-23
Today's gospel tells us about Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to Egypt, to avoid the evil plans of Herod, and of their return from there, when that danger had passed. It is a very simple story, but a very significant one, and one from which we can learn a great deal about God's over-all plan of salvation for all of us.
We are all too familiar, unfortunately, with the reality of refugees in today's world. On two continents, in recent years, we have seen the ravaged faces of young and old, of mothers and babies, all fleeing before the destructive onslaught of the bully and the tyrant. With all their riches, and all their power, such tyrants are miserably poor, and tragically weak. The greatest evil is that it always seems that it is the innocent who are the victims of greed, aggression, and violence. Not much has changed in this world since the time of Jesus. He himself would be the first to say that, when we look at any one of those innocents on our television screens, we are looking at him.
The journey to and from Egypt has a very powerful significance. For the Hebrews, Egypt was a place of slavery, and, returning from there was the Redemption of God, who lead them into the Promised Land. Moses had been a fore-shadowing of Jesus, who has come to us in our slavery, to redeem us, and to lead us safely home. His journey into Egypt was a symbol of his joining us in our exile. In becoming like us, he was joining us in our humanity, and was prepared to accompany us on our journey into freedom.
Twice in today's gospel, we are told that what Jesus did was to fulfil a prophecy that had been made about him. In other words, there was a deliberate purpose in the act. He had come to do the Father's will, and to carry out everything that was ordained for him to do. If he was to undo the evil of the original disobedience, then he had to become obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He lived in the sure knowledge that what happened to him was the Father's will. This is not predestination, or being programmed in such a way that one loses one's free-will. Far from it. What happened to Jesus is what Jesus wanted to happen. He gave himself into the Father's hands, with a deliberate offer of "Not my will, but yours, be done." His prayer to the Father was total trust, abandonment, and obedience.
Sometimes we hear the expression about being 'anchored' in life, implying that one's security comes from within, and I am not tossed around by the storms that surround me. This is far-fetched, even as I say it, because Jesus was a helpless infant at the time of today's gospel. However, throughout all of his adult life, "my meat is to do the will of him who sent me." Both he and his life was the fulfilment of a promise, the completion of a plan. If the Old Testament was radio, the New Testament was television. His had come to fulfil the promises of the prophets, and to complete the work of creation, by making it possible for sin to be forgiven, for slavery to be turned into freedom, and for death to become eternal life.
Very few of us, if any, have experienced the trauma of being a refugee, or of being homeless. Our security is important to us, and we need to have a sense of being in control. I personally have been deeply impressed, and, indeed, in awe, at colleagues who left home, and headed off into a completely unknown and uncharted mission field. This was pure gospel to me. They took Jesus at his word, went where they felt he wanted them, and trusted him totally to provide, to bless, and to fulfil his promises. In today's gospel, Jesus is a helpless child, but, in their own way, each of those of whom I speak were also powerless. It is in such powerlessness that God's power works most effectively.
Jesus was brought to Egypt as a result of a dream Joseph had, and, again, following another such dream, he was brought back to Nazareth. The Joseph of the Old Testament was mocked by his brothers as being a dreamer. Many of us interpret that to mean that a dreamer is someone who sits around with a head full of crazy and impossible ideas, but who never does anything to make those dreams come true. It is important for us to remember that some of the greatest human beings this world has ever seen have been dreamers, have been people with dreams. We all remember Martin Luther King's famous speech, which includes those immortal words "I have a dream….". Unlike those nocturnal dreams that we all have when we sleep, the real dreamer is the one who is most awake and alert. Joseph was fully open to any word from God, and he was willing and ready to carry out that word. "Happy are they who dream dreams, and are prepared to take the steps those dreams come true."
Humility is a difficult concept to grasp, and this can be caused by the fact that its meaning is so simple. It is nothing more than the plain and simple truth. It is a gift that enables me see myself as I really am, and, being fully conscious of my human weakness, I can easily see how dependent I am on God, and why I should live every day with a constant awareness of that dependence. Mary and Joseph were humble people. When she visited Elizabeth, Mary spoke of how God had regarded her lowliness, and how he had done wonderful things for her because of her own powerless to do any of that herself. She magnified God, which is like looking at something through a strong magnifying glass. The bigger your God, the smaller your problems. Despite the human hardships, Mary was quite willing to leave everything, and head off into a foreign country, if that is what God wanted her to do. Sin is pride, which is my way of insisting that I do things my way; that my way is best. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit had come upon Mary at the Annunciation, and she would continue to be led by that Spirit throughout her life.
I said earlier than when I look into the face of one of those refugee children, I am looking into the face of Jesus. Racism and bigotry is the worst form of blindness, and there is no nation on earth that can pretend to be free of that. Racism and Christianity certainly don't go together. "Whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, that's what you do to me." I myself may not have had to experience the trauma of being a refugee or of being homeless, but I can find out a lot about myself when I reflect on how I see, and how I relate to those who are in such a predicament. I don't necessarily have to personally meet one such person to discover what my inner attitudes are.
The first time I was carried into a church, I wasn't consulted, and the next time I'm carried into a church I won't be consulted either! To attempt to run the show in the meantime is insanity. I own nothing. Everything I have is on loan. One heart attack and it's all over. Humility is the gift of seeing and accepting things as they really are. Saying YES to God can be a constant and continual form of prayer. I don't ever have to worry what I'm saying 'yes' to, because God will always make that perfectly clear, as time goes by. He doesn't treat us like robots, nor does he ever want to avail of our services without our good-will, and willing co-operation. In Twelve-Step recovery programmes for alcoholics, narcotics, etc., Step Three says "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God….". What the person is really saying is "You should have seen me and my life when I was in charge!" You could do nothing better than take a few moments out today to reflect on the whole idea of turning things over to God. When you die you're going to have to let go of everything, anyhow, so why not begin with little things now?
I spoke earlier of the significance of Jesus going into Egypt, the land of slavery for the Jews, and his subsequent return from there. Slavery is a word I could do well to dwell on. I could be quite enslaved and not know it. The alcoholic is the last one on the block to believe that he is an alcoholic. If Jesus is to be my Redeemer, then I must be willing to get in touch with those areas in my life which are in need of redemption, in need of being restored to healthy and happy living. There is no doubt at all in my mind that the Spirit will certainly reveal all of this to me if I am willing to find out. As you listen to me now, or as you read this, remember that there are two characteristics of the Word of God, i.e., it is always challenging, but it is never discouraging. I hope that you will be challenged by today's gospel, and that you will be prepared to accept it as a pointer for you today, rather than as something that happened thousands of years ago.
I remember a simple incident in which I was involved many years ago. It was very early in the morning, and I was travelling to give a Retreat in a place quite a distance from home. I passed through many small towns and villages on the way. As I was leaving one town I encountered a young man thumbing a lift. I stopped to give him a lift, and discovered that he was going to a town only a few miles short of my own destination. I went through the usual litany of questions. "Are you going to work….etc." He told me what was happening. There was a centre for alcoholics in the town where I met him, and it is well known the length and breath of the country. The previous evening, under pressure from family and friends he had decided to check himself in. He attended the previous night, and, as soon as the doors were unlocked the following morning he made good his escape. I'll never forget his comment, and the sense of shock in his voice as he spoke it. "Do you know what they wanted me to do in there? They wanted me to change my whole life!" That was too much, and he got out of there before anything happened! I've often thought of him since, and have wondered what happened to him. If he was not prepared to change his whole life he is probably dead by now. The road that was pointed out to him seemed impossible to travel. Without knowing it, he took the most difficult road of all, and, as I said, it may well have cost him his life.
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And That's The Gospel Truth copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.