A Local Exodus in the Dark
And a World Mission in the Light
by David Somerville+
Pulitzer prize winning author, James Michener, once noted that “I was born to a woman I never knew, and raised by another who took in orphans. I do not know my background, my lineage, my biological or cultural heritage”.
What does Michener conclude concerning his lack of knowledge about his origins? Most of us know our origins fairly well. How different does that make us, who live in Christ, from the author? One would think that Michener’s agnosticism about his identity would be a problem for his adjustment and self-understanding. But could it be that actually Michener has some kind of advantage?
We have all heard of the poignant struggles of adult orphans to reconnect with their biological parents. Their efforts at contact either end with rejection, or with an emotional reunion in tears of forgiveness. These heartwarming reunions when they occur are usually good fodder for celebrity hosts like Oprah Winfrey. We generally believe that these successful findings are necessary so that the orphan can let go of an old obsession, and then move on. But is that always necessary? That is a question worth pondering. Perhaps we should hold these thoughts while the gospels of January 4th, The Second Sunday after Christmas Day, and the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th invite us to explore the varying themes of this great season of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Christmas falls on any Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, there shall always be space in January for a Second Sunday after Christmas. With this second Sunday comes the gospel lesson, Matthew 2:13-15,19-23, the Flight to Egypt. Having that Sunday before Epiphany creates what appears to be a strange situation. Thoughtful members of our worshipping communities might ask about this oddity if they attend services this year on Sunday January 4th, and then again on January 6th. As they hear the gospel of the 4th and then the Epiphany story, some might wonder if the liturgical calendar made a mistake.
One frigid Twelfth Night at Fort Drum, New York when I was on active duty with the U.S. Army, I presided over a “multi-denominational” Epiphany service. The Gospel lesson, of course, was Matthew 2:1-12. A worshipper, who, in civilian life, belonged to the Free Will Baptist Church, came to me during the social hour afterwards. “Chaplain Somerville,” he said, “Sometimes I can’t figure out why you ‘’Piscopals’ do things the way you do. Tonight we just heard of the Wise men’s arrival to honor the Christ child in Bethlehem. But on Sunday just a day or two ago, we heard of how the baby Jesus was taken by his parents by night into Egypt.
Another soldier, the clownish head of the motor pool, jumped into the conversation before I could come up with an answer.
“Well”, he postulated. “Maybe Joseph and Mary were in such a hurry to get out of Dodge….
“Bethlehem,” I corrected, doing the best I could to stay deadpan,
“Yeah, Bethlehem, whatever… Anyway it was like this: Joseph and Mary were in such a hurry packing all their gear and getting it on the donkey’s back, they forgot the baby Jesus! So they had to double back to get the baby – just in time to meet the wise men.
The Baptist listened politely until he had had enough. Then he continued, “No, seriously, Chaplain, shouldn’t these two events have been the other way around? I mean it’s like reading chapter three, and then chapter two! In fact, if you just read the Bible like us Baptists do, it would all make much better sense.
Unlike a novel with a sequential line of plot development, the canon is an anthology of several spiritual themes from stories of remembered historical events. They are preserved orally, and then at some point, written and copied in varying ways by a diversity of people and groups. We do not always need to read these accounts in serial even though many of the stories, but not all, are arranged like that anyway. So the enterprise of reading the Bible from left to right from the beginning of Genesis to the last verse in Revelation is not really the best way to understand the whole of the Bible.
To put this in other simple words, the Flight into Egypt coming before the Visitation by the Magi is not a cart-before-the-horse problem. The situation is more like there being two carts, each laden with its own collection of related messages, and each cart is complete with its own horse. So the question as to which must come first is inconsequential. In these two lessons we pick up two themes. Each is competent to stand alone. The Magi represent a new light of spiritual truth for all people. Gentiles are no longer the outsiders, second-class citizens in the formerly Temple-centered society of God. The Magi do not visit the temple. They visit Jesus with their gifts.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew, a properly educated and orthodox Jew, had been forced by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to revise his understanding of his community’s memories of Jesus with a larger picture of who God is, and where God is taking his creation. No longer can the uncircumcised, be excluded from intimate fellowship with God – at least in quite the same way as was done in the days of the temple. A new movement and spirituality was made to grow because God after the year 70 was out of the temple “box”. The box was destroyed by order of the Roman emperor, Nero and his general, Vespasian. The Roman mission was to destroy the faith of the circumcised, which persistently led its adherents to renounce the divinity of Rome.
The Hebrew faith was not destroyed. Instead, a more creative, adaptive form of the faith evolved. Rabbinical Judaism, nurtured by pharisaic scholars, came into its own. And, more importantly, the relatively obscure Jesus/Messiah sect within the Temple neighborhood evolved from being the child of a particular ethnic group to become the mobile, evangelical, catholic Church, adopting the former spiritual orphans of all nations and of all colors to be inheritors of greater promises than the promises of God once held for the Jews alone.
The other theme, the one for the Second Sunday after Christmas, is also capable of standing alone. It is the story that God, the Son of God, “emptied” himself, to use the language of Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, into a broken world to be cared for by parents and a wider community that lived with the threat of abandonment to genocide. That very experience of oppression with Emmanuel among the people of God brought about a faith in a God who is not above, but rather, in the midst of mortal threats to meaningful human existence. At least some of God’s favored ones would know the human situation in the challenge to survive creatively, even though their conditions were those of orphans wandering the littered streets of their fallen world. They experienced living through such bad times and thereby discovered the tenacity of their true selves, a people who can hold onto the terms of their ancient covenant, and then hand over their experiences to future generations. They were witnesses to their conviction that God would reclaim them again as God had done in their times past. They had a way of knowing that in their human events, God would be “stirred up” into action, and bring the people back to their proper spiritual home. This is how the courageous hope of the Chosen is developed to be the essential strength of Israel’s vision of itself. The people of God were becoming something like a blue print of Christ’s divinely human nature, the son called out of Egypt. Jesus Christ becomes, then, a new Moses, but a Moses for all humankind, who is beyond the character limitations of the first Moses.
All humankind, Jew and Gentile, from the dark night unto Egypt to the son-light of Epiphany can now be sought after, and assured by the truth that all have their places in the universal family of God. The Jewish history of their salvation, the pattern perfected for all people in Jesus Christ helps us in our journey through life, even today, to understand that at times we all feel like orphans. But the epiphany is a celebration of our awareness that none of us need ever believe ourselves to be consigned to eternal abandonment regardless of who our birth families are, or were.
I can find no better way to close this reflection than to return to our point of departure, a second look at how James Michener understood himself. “I was born to a woman I never knew, and raised by another who took in orphans. I do not know my background, my lineage, my biological or cultural heritage.
There is more that Michener says. He continues: “But when I meet someone new, I treat them with respect. For after all, they could be my people.” What a powerful affirmation and formula for peace this is! I wish I had Michener’s faith and attitude of equanimity about myself, and my neighbors. The author demonstrates that the mystery of his origins was in fact a real spiritual advantage!
Michener had more important things to do with his magnificently creative life than to become restless and preoccupied with searching for his birth parents. And this, I believe, is something our Emmanuel would have endorsed whole-heartedly!
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/