The Christmas services were well attended. Checking in the register, there appeared to be more at each. I was particularly pleased that there were twice as many at the Crib Service and Eucharist as last year. It was delightful to see so many children.
We live at a time when there is an enormous displacement of people. The numbers for Syria alone are extraordinary. About 6.7 million Syrians are refugees and another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Half of the people affected are children.
The plight of Syrians fleeing their homeland should help us appreciate the story in Sunday’s Gospel: Joseph, following a warning he’d received in a dream, took his family to Egypt to escape danger in their homeland.
Just as children today have been targeted in Syria, Herod had ordered the killing of infant boys in Bethlehem because he had heard that someone had been born there who would become the King of the Jews and usurp him. Joseph took the warning he’d received seriously as Herod had already murdered his wife, mother-in-law and three sons because he thought they were trying to oust him.
As with other parts of the stories about Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is nothing accidental about the way the story is told.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make connections between the history of the Jews and the present. He intends to show that the birth, life and death of Jesus are a fulfillment of Jewish expectation and prophecy. By doing so, he hopes to persuade his Jewish audience that Jesus is really the long hoped-for Messiah (the anointed king who would save his people as his ancestor King David had done).
Jesus’ flight to Egypt to escape Herod parallels Moses being hidden in the bulrushes to escape Pharaoh, who schemed to murder infant Jewish boys to lessen Jewish power and the danger of a Jewish takeover. It also parallels Moses’ flight to Midian to escape prosecution for murder.
The murder of baby boys by Herod parallels the murder of baby boys by Pharaoh. Both Moses and Jesus escaped the murderous plans of their respective rulers.
Jesus’ return to Israel parallels Moses’ elevation to Pharaoh’s palace as an infant and his return from exile after Pharaoh’s death.
But the emphasis in Matthew’s account is different from the story of Moses. After Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go, God retaliates by killing the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. When Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea, God ensured that the Egyptian soldiers were drowned.
The story of Moses and the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt reveals God as a God of vengeance and might. In Matthew, he is portrayed in an opposite way. God kills neither Herod nor his soldiers; Herod dies of natural causes. It is the rulers of this world who kill babies and later God’s own Son. But their power is in vain because God vindicates the self-sacrificial love shown on the Cross by raising Christ from the dead.
By being born in the humblest circumstances and dying in the most humiliating way, God shows that he identifies with the extremes of the human condition and is always present there. He also shows that ultimately evil will be defeated by self-sacrificial love – that is the message of the Resurrection.