Holy Family, 29 Dec 2019 ~ SMC
There’s a fable, the Snail and the Butterfly, in which the snail criticises the butterfly for all its tawdriness, all its colour, all its garish embroidery. Rather the snail says he prefers the dingy brown in which he himself is attired. The snail is introduced as one who, like Diogenes of old, carried his house upon his back, with all the pride of independence. Diogenes was a Greek philosopher who spurned worldly assumptions about wealth and slept and stayed wherever He was, without a home, making a virtue of his poverty.
We are reminded in today’s Gospel that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was born with anything but a place He could call His own. The lowly poverty of being born in a stable at Bethlehem was not quickly rectified by Joseph and Mary moving into a three bed semi. Rather, the Wise Men having gone, the Holy Family have to travel the four hundred and thirty mile trip to Egypt, which is even further away than Edinburgh is from here. They do this because there is a threat to their lives from Herod. Jesus becomes a refugee, born in to homelessness.
Homes are places of safety and security, or they should be. Too many live in homes where people who are meant to love them are abusive or where hatred is a daily feature. As Christians, we will learn to embrace suffering and know it to be part of our Christian journey. The Mother of God shows us this when she stands at the foot of the Cross, her heart pierced with sorrow, and sees her innocent Son die for those who have abandoned Him. Suffering will make us closer to Christ. But there will still be moments and occasions when we must seek to remove pain and violence from our lives. Mary shows us this today when, with her husband Joseph, they take their only child, Jesus, to a place of safety removing Him from harm, as any parent would. We pray that those who live in places of abuse might find a way out.
Home and the security that work or wealth or popularity will bring can be dangers to our spiritual lives, hence the pride of the snail who carries his home on his back. For this reason Jesus sends the apostles out with no haversack and no purse (Luke 10:4) and so it ought not to surprise us that the Lord is born in to poverty, emptying Himself of the wealth that is His as the splendour of the Father. Not all of us are necessarily called to have no material wealth, but we are all called to a distancing from material things. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). If we have lots of money and long for more money we are not blessed, but also if we have no money and long for lots of money, we are not blessed.
We do well to remember that our Lord was a refugee and was homeless when we consider our own personal response and indeed this nation’s response to immigration and the welcome afforded to refugees and people from other countries more generally. The immensely complex issue of immigration will undoubtedly continue to rumble on as a political hot potato during 2020. There’s no easy answer the Church can provide to this tricky situation but there are some general principles: families must be strengthened, not torn apart; those who face persecution must be welcomed; the responsibility to welcome those who are fleeing their homeland must be justly shared, no one country should be expected to solve the world’s problems. As we see Love come down in to the world at Christmas with the Incarnation of the Son of God, we have to see all our fellow humanity, whatever their citizenship status, as fellow sharers in the Divine Image.
Jesus goes to Egypt as a refugee and thereby mirrors the journey made by the patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph with his amazing technicolour dream coat is the subject of envy as his brothers sell him into slavery (Genesis 37). His new masters take him to Egypt, to be sold for profit. Hence Moses, generations later, finds himself in the land of the pyramids. From there Moses will lead God’s people to freedom out of Egypt. This is the movement spoken of by Hosea 11:1, which is the first quotation we heard in our Gospel today: “This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.” Hosea was referring back to Moses; St Matthew sees this same calling as pointing towards Jesus. God is in control of how this world pans out.
That prophecies are fulfilled in the life of Jesus doesn’t mean we are to believe charlatans and palm readers who try to predict when we’ll fall in love or when we will die. We are not meant to know such things. The fulfilling of prophecies shows us that the world was created with a longing for Jesus, for this leaping down of the Word-made-Flesh whose birth we have just celebrated. Hence angels come in such number to announce His birth and even the Wise Men travel great distances to worship Him. Amid the dirt of that stable, amid the grime of so much of life on earth the beauty of God is to be proclaimed and adored.
The snail in the fable with which I started, ridiculing the beauty and colour of the Butterfly, makes a virtue out of his own plain nature. Our own world can be guilty of a similar scorn of beauty and a preoccupation with what is useful. Our own spiritual lives can also be guilty of this sometimes, ridiculing what seems excessive, cutting out what we don’t think is strictly necessary or reasonable. “What does it matter whether we do this or that?” We justify things to ourselves. “Especially when this or that is the case.” This reduction to what we can justify is the equivalent of gruel when we are called to serve up the best we can conceive in our Christian discipleship.
When I come in to our Churches I am always touched by their beauty, well that is unless I’m distracted by something else! We could just meet in a cinema we’d rented or someone’s kitchen. God would still be there, of course He would; our prayers would still be answered because the Spirit blows where He wills. But we’d lose a lot. For one thing we wouldn’t have the tabernacle, the place of reservation for the Lord’s Body, the Bread reserved from the Mass. We also wouldn’t have the sense of a hundred and thirty years of prayer offered this place. And we wouldn’t have the marble in the Reredos; the Brass candle sticks; the paintings and the chasubles. It wouldn’t be beautiful beyond our normal experience of life. Churches should be beautiful for here the Author of Creation speaks to us. Here God dwells and we are to come and worship Him.
If there’s a sleeping baby in your home, you want everyone to be quiet, they can’t just carry on slamming doors or behaving however they do normally. We have welcomed a baby into our lives, the Baby Jesus, the Lord of Heaven and earth. May our lives also be altered, transformed into beautiful offerings of those qualities referred to in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love. Love was described in our first reading too, a reflection on the fifth commandment to honour our parents. These too will create beautiful places in which our Lord can come and dwell and others know His great love for them. Amen.