The Rev'd Canon Michael Rawson, Sub Dean and Canon Pastor
Those of you who tuned into Morning Prayer on Wednesday will have heard Bishop Michael Doe read the Malcolm Guite sonnet, Refugee.
I’m really grateful to Bishop Michael for drawing our attention to this gritty poem. Here it is again:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
There has been little opportunity in the liturgy this week for those who would like to hang on to a fairytale Christmas with tinsel, mince pies and turkey curry, lovely though they all are. We celebrated the mystery of the Word made Flesh in our midst a week ago, quickly followed by the feast of St Stephen on Boxing Day, the first martyr to witness to Christ by his death. On Wednesday there was the feast of the Holy Innocents, whose massacre we heard once more in this morning’s gospel reading. Then on Thursday the feast of Thomas Becket who preached his final sermon in this place before returning to Canterbury where he was martyred in his own Cathedral. These feast days underline the fact that God’s presence and Christ’s birth do not and cannot insulate us from the hardships and horrors of our twenty first century world. The news over the past week bears testimony to this reality with stabbing of Cody Fisher on a Birmingham dance floor, the shooting of Elle Edwards in a Wirral pub on Christmas Eve and the renewed bombardment of Ukraine by Russian missiles. The angels may have sung, peace on earth and goodwill to all, but their voices are drowned out by explosions and the wailing of civilians. In our gospel reading, the Wise Men have delivered their gifts, worshipped the Christchild and departed. So the mood changes. Gone is the wonder and awe of the king of the universe revealed in a vulnerable child, to be replaced by the shreaks of mothers mourning their toddlers who have been savagely massacred by the soldiers of Herod. Joseph is warned in a dream that he must flee with Mary and Jesus to safety elsewhere. The story replayed in Malcolm Guite’s sonnet and retold a thousand times over in our own day around the world. Gone are the angels, the shepherds and the Wise Men. The holy family is on their own and fleeing for their lives.
Matthew’s description of the flight into Egypt sounds rather clinical and anodyne. It’s hard to imagine it was anything like so calm. Picture instead Joseph paying the people smugglers thousands of pounds for three life jackets and places on a flimsy inflatable boat, buffeted by the swell and storms of the English Channel. They might have made it safely so far to the beaches of Kent but then they are arrested by Border Force staff who take them to an overcrowded detention centre. Here they are vilified by politicians as illegal migrants and threatened with deportation to Rwanda. The Holy Family are the refugee families that we see on our televisions day after day. They might be from Afghanistan or Syria or Ukraine or Somalia. Ordinary people like you and me, caught up in the mess and chaos of our world and desperate for a message of kindness, hope and new beginnings. There was nothing that Joseph would not do to protect Mary and Jesus. Just like there is nothing that those fleeing their homelands will not do for their loved ones.
Over two thousand years ago, Jesus laid aside his glory as the Son of God, took on our flesh and lived as one of us. Emmanuel, God with us. In our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews we are reminded that Jesus, ‘the pioneer of our salvation was made perfect through suffering.’ Jesus shared the human experience and the human condition in order to set us free; heaven came to earth so that humanity might be raised to heaven. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made Flesh, Jesus, shares our human lot with its joys and sorrows, with its mess and uncertainty, so that we might be set free to live as the children of God. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah points to the same truth, ‘He became their Saviour in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them’.
So far from becoming depressed by the feast days of suffering and martyrdom following Christmas and our readings this morning, they actually give us some hope at the beginning of this new year. God does not act in a vacuum but rather looks out for those to cooperate with God and to usher in a radical new world order. God works in the Old Testament with the ‘children who will not deal falsely’, in the New Testament through Jesus the pioneer of faith and with Joseph in protecting his family from the harm that threatens them.
2022 was a year in which we were recovering from a global pandemic and then thrust straight into the first war in Europe since the Second World War, pushing up the costs of energy and threatening food and industrial supply chains. Political instability, inflation and industrial unrest has made us feel more uncertain of the future, as has the death of her late Majesty the Queen. Hope, joy and sunny days seem in short supply.
As we begin this new year our celebrations of the Incarnation continue. Emmanuel, God with us. But just as Christ did not wait for the ideal moment or the perfect set of circumstances to enter into our world and to walk alongside humanity, neither does he today. The lack of somewhere to be born and sharing the stench of an animal’s stable is reflected today in Jesus sharing the life of humanity in the grief of a family whose child has been murdered, in the bombed out apartment block in Kherson, on a dangerous Channel crossing in a flimsy inflatable boat. God became one of us two thousand years ago and continues to accompany us on our journey through life here and now, today and tomorrow.
‘In his love and in his pity he redeemed us;
He lifted us up and carried us all the days of old.’
Thanks be to God!