You may have noticed some changes when you walked into church this morning. The most obvious are the two stars on display – one in the back of the church hanging over the baptismal font, and the other on the beautiful banner hanging in front of the church.
Those stars signal that today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day that we recognize the wise men’s visit to bring gifts and pay homage to the child who has been born king of the Jews.
It’s a familiar story, one that we tend to romanticize in Christmas pageants with children wearing crowns coming in bearing gifts for the baby Jesus, taking their place beside the shepherds, never minding that shepherds and wise men never meet in scripture.
The truth is there is nothing sweet or romantic about this story. It is one filled with the promise of danger from an insecure king, paranoid about any perceived threat to his power, willing to go to any extremes to preserve his position.
Like corrupt and ruthless leaders everywhere, Herod is skilled in duplicity. When the wise men come to him seeking information about the birth of the child who will be king of the Jews, he points them toward Bethlehem, and encourages them to stop back by on their way home to tell him where the baby is so that he, too, can pay homage to him.
But the visitors from the East are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and being truly wise men, they pay heed to that warning and go home by another way.
But that is only the first half of this story. We are never required to read the second half of it in a Sunday service, which I think is one of the great shortcomings of our lectionary.
As soon as the wise men head off on that alternate route home, an angel appears in a dream to Joseph with an urgent message.
“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.”
Joseph does as he is told, waking Mary, grabbing their few possessions, heading out in the night with their newborn child on a journey to a strange and foreign land.
All the commentaries on this story talk about how it fulfills Biblical prophecy about the messiah, that it strengthens the parallels between Jesus and Moses, who led his people out of slavery in Egypt.
But what this story says to me is that Jesus, the incarnation of God, begins his life as a refugee.
And I wonder.
How did Mary and Joseph keep the baby from crying, giving their presence away as they fled in the night?
Who helped this young family along the way? Did those strange gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh help buy food and shelter?
Did other families with young children become aware of the danger of Herod’s wrath and also flee, joining up with Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus in a caravan of families desperate to save their children?
How were they received in Egypt?
Did they slip across the border unnoticed? Were they challenged by the Egyptian authorities?
Were they reviled as outsiders and aliens, suspected of being criminals, thought of as less than human, and told to go back where they belong?
How did this experience shape Jesus’ life? Did Mary tell him stories of how they fled in the night?
Did he worry about the innocent victims of Herod’s rage and wonder why he was saved when others weren’t? Was Mary haunted by the thought of families who did not make it to safety?
Did Mary teach her son that he should always be kind and generous to those who were different, because he, too, had been an alien in a strange and foreign land?
As Christians we must remember that the God we worship took on flesh and blood and came to live among us not only as a vulnerable and helpless baby, as are all infants, but as an infant born to parents who were displaced people in Bethlehem, forced to move by the whims of emperors, and then warned to flee from danger in the middle of the night.
And as Christians we have to recognize that the very same scenario has been played out time and time again in human history, and is being played out today on the borders of our own country.
That is why for our Christmas card to family and out of town friends this year Joe and I chose cards by Kelly Latimore called “Refugees La Sagrada Familia” or “Refugees, the Sacred Family.”
You see the Hispanic looking family, the mother and father in scruffy clothes, wearing shoes not meant to withstand a long journey on foot, carrying all their belongings in a backpack and flimsy bag. The baby is wrapped in a sling around his mother’s shoulder.
It is night, the moon is full, and you can see the fear and worry on the parents’ faces, alert to any danger that may be awaiting them.
What this painting says so profoundly is that all families fleeing danger, seeking safety for their children, are sacred. The families on our border hoping to seek asylum here are sacred. The families who have been ripped apart by our government are sacred.
And all our leaders’ talk of walls, all attempts to dehumanize these families, to use them as political pawns puts us not only on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of our faith.
Because scripture tells us that if we want to find Jesus that is where he will be.
Three years ago on Christmas Day the Washington Post noted in an editorial that Jesus began his life as a refugee. Its words are as true today as they were then.
“This Christmas season there are many such people fleeing violence, living hand-to-mouth, without warmth or medical help or food, desperately seeking refuge wherever they can find it for themselves or their children,” the editorial says.
“The word ‘Christian’ is often misused in our time, in a way that implies some allegiance to a particular political party, economic doctrine, or set of moral strictures that are not representative of large numbers of true Christians,” it continues.
“There is a broader concept of the term, one that is succinct, relevant and all but imperative in this season when we face a humanitarian crisis that tests our character and our compassion.
“It comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in the words of Jesus.
“’I was hungry and you gave me food.’
“’I was thirsty and you gave me drink.’
“’I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
Once again, our character and compassion are being tested.
Will we pass the test?