The Flight to Egypt
A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, January 3, 2016
Kelly I and have just got back from the Mid-West. We spent Christmas week in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s 1200 miles, door to door. We flew, but we’ve done it as a road trip from North Carolina. Now, I know that there are parts of this country where people would travel that kind of distance to shop for groceries but, coming from England, that kind of distance still seems a little on the epic side.
Kansas City, Missouri used to be called Westport. It was pretty much the last place of ordinary human existence before the great uncharted West. The portal to The West. It was the place where the wagon trails prepared themselves for the journey into the great unknown. For some it led to disease and death. For others it led to riches and fame. One cannot but admire the pioneering spirit of those people, being led to push at the boundaries of the world.
Our gospel reading this morning tells us about an epic road trip. A pioneering and dangerous trip into the relative unknown. Its travelers were Joseph, and his young wife and newly-born baby. We are told that Joseph was told, in a dream, that King Herod, the ruthless puppet-king ruling 1st century Palestine under licence to the Roman Emperor, was sufficiently paranoid at the prospect of Jesus being a pretender to his throne, that he was prepared to undertake the search for and mass murder of local young children in order to ensure that he, Jesus, was found and killed.
Let’s just consider this for a moment and try and sort what is historically likely from what might be fanciful mythology.
There was every reason for Herod to be paranoid. These were dangerous times by anyone’s standards. The Roman Empire was ruthless and Herod’s power rested on their goodwill and his reciprocal usefulness to them. It goes without saying that he would always be looking over his shoulder. Receive some intelligence that a boy had just been born that was destined for the people of Herod’s kingdom to rally around as the new king and messiah, and it is little wonder that Herod is jumpy; he concludes that the simplest solution is to kill all children in Bethlehem under the age of two. We are used to imagining, and recalling from art, that this was slaughter on an almost unimaginable scale. The historical truth is that this number would probably have been in the dozens but no more. This may explain why other historical sources of the time do not appear to mention the episode. Herod was known for ordering killings, including of his own sons, and the sad fact may be that a massacre of infants by a despotic ruler in a small village outside Jerusalem may not have been the devastating event that we today would see it as. After all, even in our age of instant news reportage and graphic media, such killings happen routinely around the world all the time, and most do not even enter our consciousnesses.
If this was an historical event, and we have no reason to suppose that it couldn’t have been, then Joseph’s decision to take his family on an extended road trip was well-founded, and well-timed.
On our road trips, Kelly and I are lucky enough to have GPS guiding us. We have all the tools at our disposal these days to plan every element of any trip, just about, and we can plan carefully. We’re actually pretty cushioned when we travel these days, compared, say, to the pioneers of the wagon trails into the West. So, I find the way that St Matthew describes the planning for the Holy Family’s road trip as, frankly, amusing. This is what he says: ‘Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt’. Just like that.
This bit intrigued me. I mean, going from Bethlehem to Egypt is not a walk in the park. So I decided to marshal the might of modern technology in my quest for answers. I went to Google Maps. I put in Bethlehem as my start point. Now, where for the end point? We are not given any more information other than the rather unspecific ‘Egypt’ by Matthew. Egypt’s a big country. So I started by putting in one of the closest towns to the border: El Arish. I selected ‘walking’ rather than ‘driving’. And this is what Google said: ‘We could not calculate directions between Bethlehem, Israel and Arish, Egypt.’ Of course not, silly me. That journey would go through some of the most volatile and disputed territories of the current geo-political world. However, it’s probably around 150 miles. So, totally do-able, even if you’re walking with a young family.
We are not told any more detail by Matthew. No time-frame, no itinerary. But what we do have is a reference to a time frame for something else in the book of Revelation, and it uses Jesus’ time in Egypt as a comparator. And this suggests that it may have been 3 ½ years. All we know from Matthew is that Joseph kept his family in Egypt until he had heard Herod had died. Which leaves us with the question: where in Egypt did the Holy Family go, and what did they do? And the answer is: no one knows, but throughout the Nile delta region and down beyond Cairo there is a slew of ancient Christian sites, revered from at least the 2nd century, and still regarded as both sacred and special. It may be too fanciful to conclude that the Holy Family traveled from El Arish, following the Nile’s path south halfway through Egypt, but it is certainly possible. It’s around 500 miles. Google Maps told me so.
Venture into those areas right now, and you are entering some of the most volatile terrain in the world. A world where the age old enmities of Jews and Arab collide with the new evils of ISIS and its so-called caliphate.
Violence and oppression against people of faith, persecution by repressive regimes: these things are nothing new. I find it almost unbearably poignant that the geo-political machinations that drove Jesus and his parents into exile, fearing for their lives are, quite frankly, no different from the geo-political machinations that in this weekend’s headlines.
In a sense, that ought to be no surprise, because people are people. They are today, and they were two thousand years ago. People are ruthless, self-serving, self-seeking, violent, paranoid. Then and now. Contexts change, but people don’t. That is why the Christian message and the story of Christmas are as compelling today, right here, as they were in the mid-East then. So although elements of the way that story were told might seem to us to be a little fantastical, we still need the Christ Child to save us from ourselves.