Immediately after Christmas, the commercial holiday season ended. Christmas decoration were taken out of store windows and put away for another year. But in our churches and many of our homes, Christians kept their nativity sets visible. For us the Christmas season did not end with the shopping season. We celebrated with series of solemnities including Mary the Mother of God and Epiphany. Because of the length of Advent and the shortness of Christmastide we are celebrating our patronal feast, the Holy Family this weekend. I am sort of glad that we have this one last opportunity to share this joy. The joy of God-with-us, Emmanuel.
Today’s gospel jars us from that tranquil scene of the stable, the shepherds and the wise men kneeling in adoration. The magi, we are told in the gospel’s opening line, have departed. The mood of today’s account is frantic and danger lurks for the child and his parents. Herod feels his authority is threatened by the child. Earlier the magi went to Herod seeking to know where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod feels his grip on power threatened by the news the magi bring and he is enraged when the magi don’t return to tell him where they found the babe. He has the male infants of Judea killed in an attempt to eliminate a potential rival to his power. Warned by an angel the Holy Family is forced into exile. They flee to Egypt.
Matthew’s gospel has strong Jewish themes. He tells his story of the Holy Family with the history of Israel as a backdrop. A Jewish reader, or a Jewish Christian, would quickly identify the child’s plight with Israel’s own painful history of persecution. Jesus is reliving the history of Israel and Matthew uses a verse from Hosea to underline this, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (11:1). Just as God had once rescued the people from the evil Egyptian pharaoh, so God is protecting the child Jesus and his parents from Herod’s deadly plans.
When Matthew began his gospel we were told that the name of the child to be born to Mary was to be, “Emmanuel, a name which means, ‘God is with us'” (1:23). So, how is “God with us,” at this moment in the holy narrative? In Jesus God has joined the plight of the world’s refugees who have had to flee their homes because of power-hungry despots and the civil conflict they always create. The vulnerable “holy family” is fleeing for its safety. When we look for God’s presence in the world, Matthew is suggesting we look toward the poor and oppressed. God is on the side of those pushed around by the powerful. This will be a consistent message in Matthew and towards the end of the gospel we will hear Jesus state quite explicitly, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”(25: 35).
Today we have to allow our image of the peaceful “holy card” family to give way to the more realistic image of a young couple with anxiety written all over their faces fleeing with a child across the border. It shouldn’t take too much imagination to envision that scene since we have seen it reproduced countless times in television news reports and on the front pages of our newspapers for quite some time now as they report on the displacement of thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and at our own borders. It seems every part of the world these days is teaming with the vulnerable and displaced. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are kin to them all.
Immigration is a current “hot topic” in our national political debate. But the issue isn’t just a political, legal and economic one. It is also a human one. A spiritual one because it is a situation in which God himself has participated. As you know if you read the Criterion, our bishops, speaking for the whole Church on the eve of National Migration week, have said the this week is an opportunity to embrace the important work of continuing to secure the border, to welcome the stranger, and serve the most vulnerable. The feast of the Holy Family is an appropriate one to stir our thoughts on all refugees who like the Holy Family have needed angels to guide them and people like you and me to help them.