Just when it seemed that everything we had been waiting for during Advent had come to pass, just when we thought we could breathe easy again, the Christmas story takes an ominous turn. With the angels’ glorious song still ringing in our ears, the magi are warned in a dream to bypass King Herod and go home by another road. With our hearts close to bursting with joy for all the world, an angel tells Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and baby Jesus.
Just like that, God-with-us and his parents become refugees.
Just like that, an angry tyrant does his best to wipe out the hopes and fears of all the years.
And so it is that, when told in its fullness, the story we love perhaps more than any other confronts us with a reality we desperately want to ignore:
That even though the Word has been made flesh, even when God has moved into our neighborhood and Love has been born in our hearts, although the Light no darkness can overcome still shines and from its fullness we have all received grace upon grace . . .
The fear of not having enough has not been vanquished. The greed such fear engenders is forever on the loose. Threats linger, danger lurks, evil abounds, tyrants rage, and the poor and innocent still suffer.
It is enough to make us wonder what difference Christmas makes and whether Epiphany reveals anything good. It is enough to make us avoid the rest of the story.
But this part of the story, too, comes bearing gifts. And in the tenth month of an increasingly deadly and disruptive pandemic, it may well be that we have never needed those gifts as much as we do now.
Yes, we finally made it out of the surreal dystopia that was 2020, and a new year has begun. And yet it occurs to me that, in many ways, we’re still in Advent: We’re still longing—to gather again with our friends and families, to resume beloved routines of school and work, worship and singing and socializing, concerts and sports, and hugs; we’re still waiting—for the promised hope of a vaccine; we’re still watching—for signs of mutual respect and concern, for a government that will address the crisis with competence and compassion, for the waves of infection and spikes in cases to end; and we’re still preparing—for new and renewed life.
But if our traditional Advent season runs for four weeks and ends on schedule at Christmas, this pandemic Advent seems to go on and on and on, with no end it sight. The wonder and joyful anticipation of the church’s Advent journey has, in the context of the pandemic, for many of us, become a troubling and tiresome slog.
Which brings us back to Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus.
They are still in Bethlehem, still adjusting to feeding schedules and the lack of sleep, still marveling at this wondrous thing that has come to pass, falling quickly and deeply in love with one another. As far as we know, there have been no angelic visitations to Mary and Joseph for some time, and it is possible that they think that now that the baby has arrived, they are on their own.
But then three wise ones who have followed a star from the East arrive bearing gifts fit for a king. They have come by way of King Herod, but it is baby Jesus whom the magi honor, kneeling down before him in awe, all but ignoring his humble surroundings and the smell of his dirty diaper.
Gift number one of this part of the story: When we let God’s love be born in us, God’s love-light will shine in and through us. That love will beckon all manner of good things, and those blessings will remind us that we are part of a bigger story whose end we cannot see.
But trouble is brewing. Even before the tyrant-king Herod unleashes his murderous campaign to destroy the baby king, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and warns him to get out of there, to flee to Egypt. It is a long and perilous journey filled with ironies and parallels: It was from Egypt that God had delivered the enslaved Hebrew people so long ago. They were led by Moses, another baby delivered from the another genocide of Hebrew baby boys of Pharaoh, another tyrant-king.
Gift number two of this horrible story: The holy family is not alone—and neither are we. The mighty liberating God of history is also the still-speaking, still-manifesting God of the here and now, trying to get through to us for our own good. Are we listening? Are we paying attention? Though the powers rage and oppress, while the uncertain course of a scary pandemic goes on and on, do we know that God is with us? Can we trust that our dreams and longings and passions come from the Holy? Will we follow where they lead us?
Then there is the holy family’s life among strangers in a strange land—a kind of exile, really—for who knows how long. It must have been hard. So much longing for home and family, so much parental worry about the development of little Jesus. Would he grow up thinking he was Egyptian? Would they ever get to go home?
Gift number three of the story: Into every life, a little (or a lot) of wilderness will come. In every seemingly never-ending pandemic, God is present. The difficulties and worries are real, but they are also opportunities for trust. They also invite us to step up, to ground ourselves in what is most real and true, and to ground our children in the Love that does not change.
Then, there is another angel and another dream, bearing good news this time: Herod has died; go back to Israel. But by the time they arrive, there is a new tyrant in Judea, Herod’s son, and Joseph is afraid. And so there is another dream that directs him to Galilee and a town called Nazareth.
Gifts number four and five of Epiphany-plus: It pays to keep listening, to keep paying attention, to keep seeking out the God who is still and ever with us. Tyrants will come and go, pandemics will come and go, but the love of God is forever with us, as is our need for the power, protection, and peace of the Holy.
Gift number six: The story of God’s love with us has no end. A new year presents us with new invitations, new hopes and new challenges. Let us follow the stars, listen to our dreams, and trust God’s leading. Then, we too, will journey by a new and different road. And we, too, will know ourselves beloved and not alone.