by Christine Sine,
This morning, I pulled out one of my favourite Christmas, or should I say “after Christmas” ornaments. I love this modern day depiction of how the Joseph and Mary and Jesus might have travelled into Egypt. As I examined it again and smiled over the whimsy of it, I wondered: “why don’t we celebrate the flight into Egypt during the Christmas or Epiphany season?”. After all, it seems to be an integral and important part of the Christmas story, even though it is recorded only in Matthew 2:13-15.
Perhaps I have missed something, I pondered, and headed to Google to find out. What I discovered amazed me. Evidently, the Coptic church celebrates the flight into Egypt, in fact, it is central to their interpretation of the gospel story, but other churches place much less emphasis on it. Coptic tradition tells us that the small, Holy family fled alone through unfrequented paths because of their fear of the tyrant Herod. They ended up at what is now the Monastery Of Moharraq and spent 6 months living in a cave at that site before returning to Palestine. Others suggest that throughout the history of Israel, Egypt was a place of refuge for the Jews and the Holy family probably found refuge with the large Jewish community established in one of the existing communities.
Whatever the truth is, my reading gave me much to think about as I consider the current state of unrest here in the U.S. which seems to have so many parallels to the flight of Jesus’ family.
The escape of the Holy Family took place in a context of political unrest, a threatened dictator, lies and abuse of power, and the promise of violence against innocent civilians – even children. Joseph didn’t just wake up from a bad dream and decide to take his family on a vacation. This wasn’t a career move or a travel adventure. Jesus and his family were refugees. Escape to Egypt
Refugees, displaced people, those fleeing violence and oppression. I think we all feel a little like that these days. We all feel we need a place of refuge to flee to and I find myself gaining strength from this story of flight and refuge. But where do we flee to? Some suggest it is significant that the Holy family fled to the very place in which the Hebrews had once been oppressed and enslaved and I remember that the Coptic church is still oppressed in Egypt. Yet, they were one of the earliest churches established as Christianity spread throughout North Africa. Christianity is thought to have been brought to Egypt by St Mark about 40AD.
So I find my thoughts moving in unexpected directions. Why don’t we take more notice of this story and this important episode in Jesus life? Why don’t we take more notice of the Coptic church and their powerful traditions or of other churches established early in the history of Christianity? According to the tradition of Indian Christians, the Christian faith was introduced to India through conversions by Thomas the apostle in 52 AD. As I think about this, I am reminded, too, that St Catherine’s monastery, the oldest continuously occupied monastery in the world is also in Egypt. Tom and I had the privilege of visiting it on our honeymoon. It was a transformative experience for me as I, for the first time, really came to appreciate the Greek Orthodox church and my Greek heritage. More than that, I was impressed by the fact that right in the middle of the monastery there is a Muslim mosque, built to provide protection for the Christians from the raiding Bedouin tribes.
So where am I going with this, you might wonder, and what does it have to do with our current theme Time to Heal?
First, we are not alone in our fears of violence and oppression. I think that is what the story of the flight into Egypt assures us of. Jesus faced violence from the moment he was born, he was a refugee, and the end of his life was a horrible act of violence too. I think he represents all the desperate people in our world today who fear violence and oppression – be it the violence such as we saw in Washington, D.C. this week, or the violence of disease and of racial injustice.
Second, in God alone, is our place of refuge. As followers of Christ, we are not encouraged to retaliate with more violence, we are called to be instruments of peace, of reconciliation and of healing. God provides a refuge for us all, but that refuge is often only reached through an arduous and risky journey, sometimes a physical journey as refugees still face, but for many of us, a spiritual journey on which we pass through many hardships but a journey on which God travels with us.
Third, God does will healing… from violence… and calls us to be implements of healing and reconciliation. From that first frantic flight into Egypt, violence surrounded Jesus, but he never succumbed to it. He always reached out with a hand of healing or words that reached across racial and societal barriers to encourage understanding and reconciliation. That is part of the reason that St Catherine’s monastery has survived. Maybe it is part of the reason that the Coptic church has survived too.
So how do we reach across the barriers that violence and disease have created in our society? It’s not easy, but I think the place we need to start is with a willingness to build bridges rather than walls, a willingness to listen and to learn and not be afraid of where God might lead us in the journey towards reconciliation and healing.