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Sunday 29 December 2019: First Sunday of Christmas/The Holy Family

Three Dreams, an Escape and Return

Matthew 2:13-23


By Hilary Chambers

Reader, Saint John the Evangelist Parish Church, Sandiway, Cheshire

Context: adults-only sermon, with screen, during mid-morning family service in our Church Hall (children being at this point in another room)

Aim: using Art to help relate biblical stories to current issues

Well – here we are, Christmas over! My husband’s grandmother always said, the minute Christmas dinner was consumed, ‘it’s as far away now as it’ll ever be!’ The fun of Christmas over for another year, the wonder of the incarnation fading from our minds – but, goodness, what a jam-packed reading from St Matthew’s gospel to challenge our hearts and minds! Several dramatic events which I’ll call not ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (to quote the film) but ‘Three Dreams, an Escape and Return’.

The Escape to Egypt

Verses 13-15 tell us how Joseph is prompted by a dream to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod who ‘is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ They wasted no time and left immediately, at night. Imagine having to flee your home suddenly, taking only what you could carry ....

Many famous artists have portrayed ‘The Flight to Egypt’, and I’m going to show you a few now:

Panel from altar screen, Zadar, Croatia (1030-1040); Sandro Botticello (c.1495-1500); Jan de Beer (c.1520s); Nicolas Poussain (1657-8); stone detail, exterior of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (first quarter, 20th century)

But let’s not in any way romanticise this event. This was a real family fleeing in panic and distress from a very real threat. A refugee family seeking asylum in another country – as had happened before and has continued to happen over and over again throughout history.

To emphasise this here are some disturbing contemporary images:

Recent images of overcrowded small boats, migrants, refugee camps etc. ...

We have to confront, not evade or avoid, the fact that Jesus and his family were themselves refugees and asylum seekers. Surely that teaches us something about what our attitudes should be towards the refugees and asylum seekers in our world? How can we ever resist standing up for the oppressed, for justice and mercy?

The Massacre of the Infants

In my title ‘Three Dreams, an Escape and Return’ I missed out naming, you might even say I ducked out of naming, the most horrific section in today’s reading, verses 16-18 - ‘The Massacre of the Infants.’ Here we’re told how Herod in his mighty anger and desire to destroy the child-king Jesus who he saw as a threat to his rule, ordered that all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under should be killed.

Again, many famous artists have depicted this scene:

Peter Paul Rubens (1611-12) – look at this dramatic, dynamic, jumbled scene of entwined muscular bodies, evoking the intensity and panic of the event ....

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565-7) – at first glance a snowy wintry village scene, but the closer you look the more you see the dreadful interruption of everyday life, and you focus on the troops, the fear, the violence ....

Leon Cogniet (1824) – it is hard to look at this startled, terrified mother, hiding behind a wall, clutching her baby, her hand clamped over his mouth to stifle his cries ....

I could go on....

And I could show related images from the news this past year .... or years past ....

But my intention is not to upset or shock for the sake of upsetting or shocking.

My intention is, however, to challenge us all today .... to emphasise the awful, visceral reality of this story from the Bible and to relate it to life today. Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in a cruel world where children have suffered throughout the ages and still suffer now ...

The Return from Egypt

The story of the Return from Egypt is told in verses 19-23. Joseph dreams two more dreams. God prompts him to return to Israel, now that the threat from Herod has passed. Then because of another dream he seeks safety in another district, Galilee, and settles in the town of Nazareth. There we understand he set up his carpenter’s business, and later his son Jesus worked alongside him.

So, here’s a different image – Christ in the House of his Parents by John Everett Millais (1849-50). We see the Holy Family in Joseph’s workshop. There is lots to read into this painting: the young Jesus has cut his hand on a nail (warning of the crucifixion) and the blood drips down onto his foot; his mother Mary offers comfort and her cheek to be kissed; Joseph tenderly holds his hand; his grandmother Anne moves to remove the nail from the door with pincers; is that his young cousin John (the Baptist) bringing water to clean the wound?; does the dove perched on the ladder signify the Holy Spirit?; does the carpenter’s triangle on the wall signify the Trinity? ....

Exploring through art is a wonderful way to enhance spiritual reflection and contemplation, whether through comfortable, beautiful scenes like this one, or disturbing images like some we saw earlier.

And perhaps we were helped to engage with some difficult stories, images and issues this morning – and reminded of our core duty to speak and live the voice and values of the kingdom.

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