Fleeing to Egypt, Henry Vaughan, and an Absence of Peace after Christmas (Matthew 2.13-15)

The baby is born, the Magi have knelt before him, and now the holy family must run for their lives.

“…An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘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.'” (Matthew 2.13)

St Matthew’s Joseph the dreamer responds to a night time visitor (as in 1.20 and 2.19-20) and takes his family to Egypt for safety. Although most famous in the Bible as a site of oppression in Exodus, Egypt was first a place of salvation for another dreamer called Joseph (Genesis 39-50). Even baby Moses was drawn out of Egyptian water to safety and would later draw the Israelites out of danger in Egypt (Exodus 2-14). Elsewhere in the Bible, troubled Israelites kings often looked to Egypt for refuge (e.g. 1 Kings 11.40). So, in biblical terms, fleeing to Egypt – rather than anywhere else – is not unprecedented.

It is important to note that in the Bible, Egypt is always linked with trouble. Something goes wrong causing the biblical character to look to their powerful neighbour for help. In Genesis, Joseph only ends up in Egypt because of the violence of his brothers; Abraham due to a famine in Canaan (Genesis 12.10); the people of Judah because they feared the Chaldeans (2 Kings 25.26); and here in Matthew, it is the threat of Herod which prompts the escape from Bethlehem.

And this trouble is what stands out to me as – my goodness – we have all seen some trouble this year! Fear – check. Stress – check. Fatigue – check. Loss of security – check. And so on… it has been a year of trouble. Maybe that is just the way life is for us at a time of coronavirus, climate change, shifting political landscapes, and Brexit. And really, history reveals that people always have trouble. 2020 feels extreme for sure, but none of the things thrown at us are necessarily surprising; it is perhaps more to do with the combination of factors coming together in one single year that has knocked us all off-balance so severely.

In any case, back to Matthew 2.13 and I am confused as to why the coming of Jesus at Christmas is surrounded by trouble: shouldn’t the birth of Christ be the one thing not cloaked in darkness and struggle? However, the holy family need to flee to Egypt in fear of Herod, having already faced the possibility of public disgrace with regards Mary’s mysterious pregnancy, and the trials of a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The coming of Christ appears as problematic as any other human experience, and the divine intervention comes in the middle of factors such as human prejudice, power struggles, fear and violence.

In the lead-up to Christmas I read some poetry by Henry Vaughan published in the 1650s. One particular line, from The Nativity, has been rattling around in my head throughout the festive season:

Peace? and to all the world? sure, One

And He the Prince of Peace, hath none.

That is, the One arriving as God-with-us bringing a promise of peace, himself experiences no peace. The troubles surrounding events at Bethlehem already mentioned, reveal something of the truth of this verse. And in fact, the restlessness of Jesus extends far beyond his birth alone. Vaughan goes on:

He travels to be born, and then,

Is born to travel more again.

These words make me consider the journey from an eternal, heavenly existence of the Word to the foetus growing in the womb of Mary. Then, I think about how Jesus’ life recorded in the Gospels appears as one lived in almost constant motion, confrontation, and sacrificial giving. His lack of peace is painfully familiar to me during this time when I feel no peace. In some ways it may even be reassuring.

I might put it this way:

In order for the coming of Christ to be meaningful, he must embody the human experience truly and absolutely. In doing so, Jesus, as God-with-us, accompanies us in our troubles – even those of a deep and profound nature.

The picture in Matthew 2.13-15 of the holy family scared, running for their lives to Egypt, reveals something of the true nature of God-with-us. It is similar to the sign offered to us each Christmas of the pregnant woman and the child called God-with-us (Matthew 1.23; Isaiah 7.14). Both show the vulnerability, dependence, strength and struggle common to humanity. They reveal God-with-us as actually God present in all that we experience. The fleeing parents help their baby, but also require help from the angel and in the temporary safety of Egypt. And in Henry Vaughan’s poem The Nativity, it is the baby’s “restless mother”, “oppressed with troubles” who gives Jesus rest upon her “chaste lap and sacred breast”.

There is no peace apart from that received from another who themselves is lacking in peace. Indeed, this seems to be the model of Jesus’ life recorded in the Gospels: he gives of himself through compassion, and is awoken from sleep to save the disciples. But at the same time, he allows himself to be blessed by others, all of whom had their own struggles. Again, there is no peace apart from that received from another who themselves is lacking in peace.

And I think it is here that I find myself without excuse for not enacting God-with-us. My own troubles from this year and lack of peace do not give good enough reason to disengage from interactions altogether! That is, I cannot claim to be “damaged goods” not fit for purpose because, the ways in which 2020 have left me hurt, cynical, and tired, will surely be exactly the ways through which others can engage with me, help me or indeed be helped by me.

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