This year I took a break from
preaching doing gospel “reflections” at Mass because I’ve been doing so many book related events, and I wanted to let other people have a chance to get up and speak at the ambo. But Advent is probably my favorite liturgical season, so I wanted to share with you a reflection I gave at Advent a couple of years ago, on the Flight into Egypt. It’s one of those weird Gospel stories that only occurs in one Gospel (theology geek out warning: thus it didn’t likely come from the Q source), and it only occurs in Matthew, which is frankly my least favorite Gospel. So writing this was a challenge. But it remains one of my best memories of public speaking, a task I normally look forward to like a root canal. Best wishes as the darkness enfolds us, even as it cannot comprehend us.
Vespers Reflection, Mt. 2:13-15; 19-23
December 22, 2010
Our reading tonight is often referred to as the story of the “flight into Egypt”. It’s a story about exile and return, and about the gifts given to us by people who are silent.
Tonight we approach the end of Advent, a time of waiting, listening, and – above all – a time of patience. But everywhere around us are symptoms of impatience. The crowded streets, people pushing a bit more than usual on Muni and Bart, the nightmare of airports and freeways.
It’s this impatience and darkness that leads many of us to shut down at this time of year. Perhaps for some of us, it is also a welcome opportunity to embrace the stillness of winter. Many of us wake in the dark, work in a closed space through the daylight hours, and head home in the dark. As a winter people, we crave light like we crave air.
This is why Advent directs us to tend to the things deep down inside of ourselves. Those of you who are heading to a midnight mass in a few days will hear the words of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone”. Just a few weeks ago, our Jewish brothers and sisters lit the candles on their menorahs for Chanukah, one light at a time until every light shone.
Now is the time for us to begin preparing our own lights. But an odd thing happens in tonight’s reading; as soon as Jesus is born, he’s chased out of Israel, and sent into exile. The light is lit, the family gathers around it, the Magi arrive, and Herod’s tyranny means Jesus must be hustled off into Egypt by his foster father Joseph.
This is a story of light gone into exile. It’s also the beginning of what many theologians refer to as the “hidden life” of Christ; the years when he evolves as a man, out of sight of the world. Those years are a time of silence. But this story teaches us to reframe the idea of exile. It helps to think of exile not as a time of isolation, but as a time of formation.
Thomas Merton captures this idea. “We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them”, Merton tells us. “We do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good.” Surely this applies to the story of Christ, who went into Egypt as a baby, but what about us? How many of us have been exiled or hidden? What parts of our inner lives have we stashed away? And who has protected us when we were most vulnerable, when we needed to be hidden in order to become who we are tonight?
Joseph is the foster father of Christ, yet in this reading about the flight into Egypt, we learn very little about him. Joseph is busy in this reading fulfilling two prophecies; Hosea’s prophecy that God will call his son out of Egypt, and the notion that the Messiah will come from a despised place.
We should take note of the fact that Jesus’ family had to flee because of the conditions they were living under. Richard Horsley tells us that Herod had turned Israel into “what today would be called a police-state, complete with loyalty oaths, surveillance, informers, secret police, imprisonment, torture and brutal retaliation against any serious dissenter”. That seems like a very contemporary story. How many people, even here in San Francisco, come fleeing conditions exactly like that? As Ched Myers reminds us, “the savior of the world begins life as a political refugee”.
We must remember that the Holy Family was poor. We must remember that they lived as exiles. And at this time of year, when we are prone to dark, lonely moods, we must also recall that they eventually found a home, even if it was not the place where they expected to end up. I want to return for a little bit to the figure of Joseph, because these readings from Matthew are really the only time we learn about him. When I came to Vespers last week, Reverend ______ reminded us of Joesph’s righteousness: how he kept his promise to Mary in spite of what was essentially an out of wedlock pregnancy, how he raised Jesus in a traditional Jewish home, reading Torah together, going to temple, honoring the Jewish laws.
Over the past few weeks that I’ve been planning this reflection, however, another thing has stood out about Joseph, and that’s his silence. Exile is a kind of enforced silence, since immigrants and anyone fleeing oppression do not have much of a voice to speak with, but Joseph is literally silent: we never hear his voice. Thus a lot of theologians talk about Joseph’s life as a “hidden life”, much like the years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his public ministry.
Just because a life is hidden, however, doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. Henri Nouwen says that we should strive to be “hidden in life, but visible to God.” Joseph’s silence speaks multitudes. His job in tonight’s reading is not to speak, but to listen. And for many of us, listening in days when we feel the darkness pressing in is the hardest thing of all.
This past summer, I decided to attempt to do an eight day silent retreat. Even though I suffer from a genetic disorder called logorrhea – diarrhea of the mouth — I’d made it though a four-day silent retreat, so I figured eight days was manageable. There was an hourly talk each day with my spiritual director, but aside from that, we were not only forbidden to talk, we weren’t even allowed to make eye contact with the other retreatants outside of Mass. Not being able to smile at anyone, to look up from my plate at dinner, or acknowledge my friend who was also there began to bother me. “I’m going stir crazy”, I finally told my director. “It’s not a prison,” he reassured me. “Go for a walk into town.”
So I did. And I went out of my way to smile and gaze at every stranger on the street. Many of them probably thought I was nuts. But the silence at the retreat center forced me out of my normal role as someone dependent on language. When even facial communication was cut off, the only person left to talk to was God, and as we all know, God can be a bit taciturn. I had to learn to listen for God’s voice in the most unexpected places, from the most unexpected people.
Silence and exile force all of us to slow down, to be more patient, and to be more aware of the people around us, especially those whose own lives are hidden. Recently, a group of women at my parish started getting together to plan some meetings for a women’s group. One of them is a teeny, tiny woman in her sixties or seventies. We were talking about ministry, and said that she travels alone to San Quentin. When we asked how she counsels the prisoners, she surprised all of us by saying “Oh, I just listen.” Try to imagine for a minute this woman, barely five feet tall, passing through maximum security in order to spend time sitting with violent offenders, just listening.
Listening is also a challenge for many of us in the church today. For people in the LGBT community, for women, for anyone who feels marginalized or misunderstood, we have to listen harder in order to find representation and resonance. But, as they did for Joseph, the messages of what we should do will come to us at unexpected times. The more that I interact with other Catholics, the more I learn about how many of us are working for a more inclusive and more welcoming church, even in small ways that remain hidden to most people on the outside. And just like Joseph, we work to protect and care for one another.
Tonight’s reading offers us a new idea about exile. Rather than being punishment, perhaps we can think of exile as a time of formation, a time when Christ’s worldview and ideologies are shaped. Formation leads to vocation. And the same is true for many of us; as adults, we seek communities of like-minded people. We find our families of choice. If the adult Christ found his own family of choice among the most despised and marginalized people in his society, to me that means that many of us here in the Bay Area, whether we grew up here or arrived seeking a tolerant community, should feel even more of a kinship with him. We love one another more for being outcasts, and accompany one another, as Joseph did. We are lights to one another.
The other night, I went to hear Chanticleer, who I’m sure many of you are familiar with, and they debuted a new composition, based on the opening words of John’s gospel. I want to leave you with these profound and reassuring words.
The light shines in the darkness
And the darkness could not comprehend it.