Reflections on Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 by The Rev. Margaret Rose
The Flight into Egypt
For many years I have had a standard angle on this text of the Flight into Egypt. Apart from some historical reflection, it is about how its actually okay to flee when one is in danger—either physically or mentally or emotionally. The geographic cure may not last long, but at least there is a respite—from the evil King or from some other more inner adversary. Fleeing is sometimes the best way to cope. Denial is a response which offers us time to find a safe space to return to. I have often thought of this as the Safe House text. A place of shelter in a foreign land when abuse is the only sure thing about home.
But this Sunday I am preaching in a parish which has offered an even deeper look at this text. The parish is St. Augustine’s Church on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Founded in 1828 for the wealthy of that neighborhood, it built “slave galleries” so that African American workers who accompanied their owners to church could worship apart. Likely, it was to ensure that workers remained close at hand to be watched. New York outlawed slave ownership in 1827, but equality was not even a distant hope. However, Free men and women who worshipped together had the opportunity to be together in ways that were not possible during the week. And in spite of the separation, it was a place where African Americans were able to worship, where they learned to read and where it is even possible that a burgeoning abolitionist movement in the area was formed. The slave galleries—box like structures at the rear of the church---still exist today, as a stark reminder of those dark days, a piece of history from which to strengthen resolve for the future. Indeed today, St. Augustine’s is the largest African American congregation in that part of the city.
Over the years, this parish where African Americans had no power or rights, has become a symbol of refuge and liberation—a place of renewal and hope.
And so I return to the story of the Flight to Egypt. Joseph and Mary flee to this place whose memory for the People of Israel was one of slavery and oppression. We claim the of Exodus as the primal liberation story of that people—the hoping of leaving Egypt never to return. The idea that this place of slavery so many centuries later has become a place of refuge for the holy family, offers hope in a political world of danger and torture and seeming despair. Even if it takes centuries, there is this symbolic and very real possibility.
For Matthew—we don’t get to the present, or indeed the future with out the past, without knowing where we have come from, the journey one might say of God’s long standing presence. I always remember Matthew because he is the one—in my childhood memory of the King James Version of the Bible, with the “BEGATS” genealogy was important for Matthew---precisely because in hindsight, one could see things clearly and know that God was involved even when it might not have seemed so at the time. Throughout his Gospel as he tells of Jesus and the events of his life, his words are often prefaced with “As the prophets foretold”….. It is not for nothing that these things have happened. “all this took place to fulfill……”
So for Matthew the past matters.
So also does the present and the signs of the times. Pay attention to the signs: Matthew seems to say --dreams and stars and even your own body. For the whole universe is part of God’s plan for the redemption of history into new possibility of the healing of a broken world. For you never know when a star may lead you to the savior. You never know when a dream will send a message of truth, or when redemption may occur and Egypt, once a place of slavery becomes a place of refuge. Paying attention doesn’t make it easy of course; the Road may well be hard and the journey treacherous. And persistence and endurance are required along the way.
That is how it was with Mary and Joseph. First, the road to Bethlehem where they are hardly settled than a host of visitors arrives having themselves traveled from afar, by the leading of stars and dreams--the shepherds and the strangers from the East, wise men of another religion. They have come to worship or at least check out what has come to pass, courageously defying King Herod. They, too, depart by another route, a new direction—symbolically and literally. No sooner has Herod discovered he has been duped by the wise men than Joseph and Mary flee to safety to the land of Egypt. Safe in Egypt we read of the horrible slaughter of the innocent boys ---Herod’s rage and fear know no bounds. The text of lament, not offered in today’s lesson is that of a mother’s broken heart: A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentations, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled.
All this of course, is Matthew’s account, which historically we know was to establish Jesus credibility in history, his role as a prophet. The new Moses and indeed as Messiah. For us today, this witness is Good News for us in 2009, amid the current events both of violence in Israel and Gaza and fear at home of economic distress.
Reread in this new light, Matthew’s Good news for us goes well beyond permission for flight and denial. And I will know even more once I have actually experienced the day at St. Augustine’s. But my insight from Matthew this week was a gift. In short ---
Know our history, Pay attention to the signs. Be fearless and persistent in the journey, even though dangerous. Expect transformation. Perhaps that can be a message for us as we begin the season of Epiphany. E-piph-a-ny: “a sudden, intuitive perception.” May there be many!