Flight to Egypt
Religious Reflections

The Rest of the Christmas Story

Christians usually leave out the "rest of the story" from the Christmas story. I am not talking about the fact that it will ultimately lead to Good Friday. While we tend to tell the Christmas story in an overly picturesque manner, Christians are well aware that the Christmas story will eventually lead Jesus to the cross. The issue that I will discuss here and what most Christians fail to remember is that Jesus' family had to flee the country soon after the birth.

This is my fourth and final post about the Christmas story. The previous ones were on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I have previously discussed that what we know as the Christmas story is a mash-up or combination of Matthew's and Luke's accounts as they are only two Gospels that have any birth of Jesus accounts.  Luke has the journey to Bethlehem, the manger scene, and shepherds. Matthew has the visit of the Magi or Wisemen. The Flight into Egypt is only contained in Matthew and is a continuation of the Magi visitation. Luke's birth story also includes the circumcision and naming of Jesus and his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (see Luke 2:21-38).  Matthew does not contain these accounts, but presumably, they happened before the family had to flee to Egypt.

Here we will focus on Matthew's account of the Christmas story. In their search for whom the star had pointed, the Magi had first gone to Herod asking where the baby who was to become King of the Jews was to be born. Herod's advisors gave them advice on where to look, and Herod told them to return after they found the child so that he could then go and worship the child. However, after they found the baby Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, a dream warned them not to return to Herod. So, they returned to their land by another road.

Of course, Herod had no intention of worshiping this "supposed" King of the Jews. He was King of the Jews (duly installed by Rome). The story is a reminder to Christians that if Jesus is who we claim him to be, that he will always be a threat to the powers that be. No matter how good we think our nation is and how much we love our country, in some ways, it is still always "Rome." It means that for Christians, our first alliance must always be to God and not our country. We should not easily mix "God and country" because there will always be tension between them.  Moreover, every government expects that it be the first loyalty of citizens, which is unacceptable to God's people.

God knew the threat that Herod posed to the child Jesus. And so, Joseph received instructions to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. While scripture does not say so, this is most likely where those impractical gifts that the Magi brought become useful. This is a poor peasant family. How could they afford to travel to Egypt and then remain in a foreign land for an extended time? No doubt, these gifts allowed them to finance this endeavor.

Why Egypt as opposed to another land? It is because Egypt, along with the Greeks and Hebrews, had the ancient concept of the "right to asylum" by which it would protect people who were persecuted by the government of their homeland. Most likely, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to apply for this protection when they arrived in Egypt.

(continued below)

Flight into Egypt

Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (circa 1916-1922). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/flight-egypt-23652) which states "The story of the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s wrath was a favorite of Tanner’s, who created as many as fifteen works on the theme. In this painting, Mary and the donkey are barely discernible, with the suggestion of a figure representing Joseph behind them. Moonlight illuminates the path for the family to follow. Tanner’s own experience of racism in the United States, which motivated him to move to Paris, may have led him to identify with the persecuted Holy Family."

The Christian Church later adopted the concept of asylum. An asylum seeker could find refuge in a church, on church property, or in a bishop's home. The Council of Orleans codified this practice in 511. Over time, western nations adopted the church's practice into their national law protecting persecuted people from other lands. In 1948 the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the ideas stating, "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

Recently, there has been discussion about those seeking asylum in the United States. Some of the same Christians who claim to want to make America into a Christian nation have wished to put extreme limits on the U.S. asylum program if not eliminate it. I suspect that many do not know the history explained above. Christians should be exploring how to live out the Christian duty to welcome the stranger. The right of asylum protected Jesus, and consequently, Christianity from its very early days has seen providing asylum as a duty of Christians.

Once Herod discovered that the magi had tricked him and not returned to reveal to him the child's identity, Herod took a terrible action. He sent his soldiers to kill all the children age two and under, in and around Bethlehem. Consequently, we now know that the threat to Jesus was genuine, and that is why it was crucial to get Jesus to asylum in Egypt. The story also reveals what rulers will do to keep power. While it may not be a slaughter of children, we may see parallels in what contemporary leaders will do in their attempts to remain in power.

The early church developed the Feast of Holy Innocents to remember the massacre of these children. It is celebrated by Western Church (almost exclusively by Catholics) on December 28 and by Eastern Churches (Orthodox) on December 29. I am not sure how those became the dates for the celebration. Perhaps it was an attempt, like this post, to remind Christians that this is part of the Christmas story.  However, I think it is an unfortunate date because the event does not occur until after Epiphany (the arrival of magi) which is celebrated on January 6. It would have been better if the church calendar had placed the date for this remembrance after January 6.

Initially, this feast day was focused on martyrs and recognized these children as the Christian Church's first martyrs. It also focused on all the martyrs of the church now over the two millennia of church history. Consequently, it is a good time for us to think of those who have died for a cause, be it within the Christian faith or not. Who might you want to remember and lift up as we explore the story of the massacre of the innocents?

Unfortunately, over time, the Feast of Holy Innocents transformed into one of the "feast of fools" days in the church calendar. It became a kind of "children's day," a day of merrymaking for children, in which children got special rights that they did not usually have. For example, in some places, a boy would be elected bishop for the day, parents would surrender power, and in monasteries, the youngest member became the abbot or abbess for the day. While one can see the connection to the original purpose in that letting children be children for the slaughtered children who never got to be children, I wonder if the problem of having such a sad remembrance during the twelve days of Christmas had something to do with this transformation. In more recent times, the focus has returned to its original purpose and focuses on martyrs.

In general Protestant churches have not celebrated the massacre of the innocents. However, in the 1850s, Protestant Churches in the United States began celebrating a Children's Day, typically on the second Sunday in June. Children's Day predates the celebration of Mother's Day and Father's Day. Julia Ward Howe started Mother's Day (ironically, she was the writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) as an anti-war protest day in which Mother's vowed to never send their sons off to war again. Father's Day was started in 1909 as a complement to Mother's Day, which by then had lost its anti-war flavor. The protestant Children's Day never had a connection to the massacre of the innocents. Nevertheless, there may be a parallel with the transformation of Mother's Day from a protest day against war into a celebration of mothers. It is probably natural to prefer tame holidays as opposed to ones that challenge us.

After Herod died, God appeared in Joseph's dream and told him that his family could return to their homeland. But because Archelaus, Herod's son, was ruling in Judea, a dream warned Joseph that the area around Jerusalem (including Bethlehem) might not be safe. So, the family went north to Galilee and settled in Nazareth. Matthew tells us nothing else about Jesus' life until he begins his public ministry as an adult.

So now the Christmas story is complete. How might your understanding of Christmas be changed if we included this final part of the Christmas story in our celebrations of Christmas?


2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 "A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph[k] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." (Matthew 2:13-23 NRSV)

Flight Into Egypt 1923 Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. See information under the pervious painting above for information on Tanner.

About the painting at the top of this post: The Flight into Egypt (La fuite en Égypte) by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902) circa 1886-1894. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. (https://archive.org/details/brooklynmuseum-o4440-the-flight-into-egypt-la-fuite-en-gypte).

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Epiphany
Religious Reflections

Epiphany

Do you still have your Christmas decorations up? For you efficient ones, there is a tradition in some places which holds that it is bad luck to still have them up at Epiphany. But for the rest of us, perhaps they should still be up because the Christmas season ends with Epiphany. No doubt, you know the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but many of you may not know what it is referring to other than silly/extravagant gifts. The song is about the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany.

Western Christianity celebrates the holiday of Epiphany as the day when the magi arrive to find the baby Jesus in a house in Bethlehem. (Eastern Orthodox churches have a different understanding of Epiphany related to Jesus' baptism.) In the western church calendar, January 6th is Epiphany, but since not all church holidays fall on Sunday, you may have already celebrated it last Sunday (Epiphany Sunday). Also, January 5th is Twelfth Night, traditionally a feast night celebrating the end of Christmas. However, you may better know that name from Shakespeare's play than from any feasting practiced on the night of January 5th.

For those with decorations still up and specifically those who have a manger scene: Are there wisemen (magi) in your manger scene? Well, they really should not be there. According to scripture, the magi neither visit the manger nor arrive on the night of Jesus' birth. What most of us know as the Christmas story is really a mashup of the two different versions from Luke's and Matthew's gospels. (Mark and John contain no birth of Jesus story.) There are no magi told of in Luke, which is where the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the manger story are contained. Mathew has no journey to Bethlehem, manger, or shepherds.

Perhaps we can understand Matthew as a follow up to Luke's birth and manger account. In Matthew's telling, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem. That is where the magi find the baby Jesus--in a house.

We do not know who the magi were or precisely from where they came. Despite hymns such as "We Three Kings," we do not know the number of magi who arrived at the house in Bethlehem. We also certainly do not know their names. The traditional names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar come from a sixth-century manuscript. The traditional number of "three" magi comes from the three gifts they present.

I have heard all kinds of jokes about the gifts to the tune of "frankincense, just what a baby needs?" Or "how about a blanket or diapers?" However, these are appropriate gifts for a king. And they most likely played a crucial role in the next, and unfortunately often ignored, part of the Christmas story which I will discuss in a future post.

frankincense

Magi with a golden box filled with Frankincense. Frankincense is the hardened resin of the Boswellia tree. This is frankincense from Omani which is said to be the best in the world. It a beautiful spicy warm citrus aroma that is long lasting.

All that Matthew says is that the magi came from "the East." But Matthew does tell us that they have observed a special star, so we know they were astrologers who saw meaning in the night sky. These clues have led many scholars to surmise that they were Zoroastrians who lived in the area that we now call Iran and had a learned class who studied the stars. Zoroastrians were also likely the first religion to fully develop the concept of monotheism and influenced the beliefs of Jews living in exile in Babylon (now Iraq) during the sixth century BCE. The Jews then passed the concept of monotheism on to Christianity and Islam.

The central importance of Epiphany for Christians is two-fold: First, the magi's coming to greet this child is a recognition of the nature of this baby. The nature of the gifts from the magi also represent this. This is no ordinary child as the night sky does not foretell typical births. For Christians, Epiphany is a celebration of the incarnation of God in this baby boy named Jesus. Second, no matter the religion of the magi, they were not Jews. Consequently, the magi's coming to celebrate the birth of Jesus is seen by Christians as an indication that the Jewish baby named Jesus will have an earthly mission that is not only for the Jews but also for Gentiles.

It is a shame that most Christians overlook this significant holiday. Epiphany is the holiday that celebrates who and for whom this baby was born: God incarnate comes for the whole world.

Have a Blessed Epiphany.


2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Mathew 2:1-12 NRSV)

Magi
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Manger
Religious Reflections

Christmas

As we celebrate Christmas, let us remember what we are celebrating. The manger scene would not have been the beautiful one we depict. Instead, a young couple of color with the woman about to give birth are on the road but can find no place to stay. And so they seek shelter, most likely in a cave, where someone kept animals. Nowhere does scripture say it is stable. And in this dark and dirty place, the time of birth comes. There is no doctor, nurse, or midwife to help with the delivery. Men did not help with such things in Joseph’s culture, and so he would have known nothing of what to do. But there was just Mary and him. As terrifying as it must have been, with the pain, with the dirt, and with the blood, somehow the birth was completed. But then, what to do with this child? They had some cloth bands, so they used them to wrap this new child and laid him in a trough from which animals feed.

"Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:4-7 NRSV)

Jesus' Birth
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The World Awaits
Religious Reflections

Advent

The first season of the Christian church year is Advent. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

Advent is a season of "expectant waiting."

We wait. We expect something. Something better! In particular, the season is waiting for the birth of Jesus or, in other words, Christmas.

But most of us do not like to wait. Most of us are not particularly good at it. Most of us are no longer the child who can hardly wait until Christmas arrives to see what presents we will get from Santa and others. Instead, we fill the Advent season with mad Black Friday shopping, figuring out what gift to get each person, putting up the Christmas tree and other decorations, sending out the Christmas cards, wrapping packages, and preparing treats and other foods. Individually, some of these activities are pleasant if not favorites. But in total, they can leave us a stressed-out mess.

Some Things Take Time

We tend to do the same when expecting a new child, especially a first child, in the family. We gather and read books on how to take care of a baby. We get the baby's room painted and decorated. Then there is the purchase of a crib and a multitude of other items the new baby will need. We prepare birth announcements and compile the list of people to send it to. Others may host baby showers for us. Again, these are all good and often enjoyable things to do. But the rush of activity also hides our inability to wait.

This is not what Advent is trying to teach us. Advent teaches us to wait expectantly. In a word, "expectant waiting" is patience. The birth of a child is not going to come any sooner just because we want it to. Christmas is not going to come any sooner just because we want it to. We simply must wait. Yet, we can wait with hope.

Perhaps this terrible experience of COVID-19 can and is teaching us something about how to experience Advent. We so want it to be over, and things return to normal! But except for a few scientists working on vaccines, the vast majority of us can do little to help restore normalcy. Yes, we can take essential steps to make the impact of this pandemic less severe and doing so can save lives. But that is not the same as the pandemic coming to an end. For that, all we can do is wait. We can choose to wait patiently, even as our lives are disrupted. We can also choose to live in the hope that the future will be better than the present.

Advent is also the time in the church year, where Christians are to focus on Christ's second coming. It is evident in the scripture that the first Christians thought this event would happen soon, as in their lifetime. Today, across Christianity, there is a wide variance of beliefs about the nature of this event. But that is not relevant here.

The relevance is that here we are 2,000 years later, and that event has not yet happened. Nevertheless, Christians still in faith wait expectantly for that event. Even after 2,000 years of waiting, we still believe. That is patience. That is Advent.

Bethlehem
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