by Brother Julian McDonald cfc
When the magi had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Matthew 2, 13-15, 19-23
I have not often been accused of being a slow learner, but there are times when I think that description fits perfectly. I simply could not understand why, the day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Stephen, who was stoned to death because of his belief in Jesus. His feast-day is followed in quick succession by those of St John, Apostle and Evangelist, the Holy Innocents and St Thomas á Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury, assassinated in his own cathedral). Why on earth, would the Church commemorate all these between Christmas and New Year? It was a mystery to me for years, until one day it dawned on me, hitting me like a ton of bricks. Anyone, who commits to following in the footsteps of the Jesus who became one of us will have to pay a price, even the price of his or her life. Jesus was a figure of division from the very day of his birth. Herod was so threatened by the child the magi came to worship that he saw no option but to have him murdered. That was why Joseph, Mary and Jesus became refugees in Egypt. In Matthew’s eyes, Jesus became the second Moses, who came out of exile in Egypt to rescue the people from the oppression that kept them enslaved – the oppression imposed by a foreign power that occupied their land and oppression that had been visited on them by their religious leaders who had enslaved them in religious legalism.
How, you may well ask, does this connect with the feast of the Holy Family which we celebrate on this first Sunday after Christmas. To begin to understand that, I want to make an excursion into the memoirs of Elie Wiesel, a great Jewish writer who has written eloquently and with great sensitivity about his experience leading up to and then within the World War II concentration camp of Birkenau. Elie’s family had employed a housekeeper, by the name of Maria, who was a Christian. She had worked for the Wiesel family since before Elie was born, and left the family only when non-Jews in Hungary were forbidden to work for Jews. Maria returned, at considerable risk to her own safety, to plead with the family to escape with her to a secret hiding place in the mountains, before it was too late: “There’s nothing to fear there…You’ll be safe…There are no Germans there and no bastards hiding them.” Elie Wiesel continues: “We gathered at the kitchen table and held a last family meeting. Should we follow Maria or stay? We surely would have accepted her offer had we known that ‘destination unknown’ meant Birkenau…All we knew was what we had been told: that the convoys were headed for the interior. ‘Well-informed’ Jewish notables in Budapest had given us clear assurances on this point. In light of that, the general view was that we should tell Maria no. “But Why?” she implored us, her voice breaking. “Because”, my father replied, ‘a Jew must never be separated from his community. What happens to everyone else will happen to us as well.’
“My father was right. We wanted to stay together, like everyone else. Family unity is one of our important traditions, as the enemy well knew. And he now used that knowledge, spreading the rumour in the ghetto that the Jewish population would be transferred to a Jewish labour camp where – and this was the essential thing – families would remain together. And we believed it. So it was that the strength of the family tie, which had contributed to the survival of our people for centuries, became a tool in its exterminators’ hands.”
“Dear Maria. If other Christians had acted like her, the trains rolling toward the unknown would have been less crowded. If priests and pastors had raised their voices, if the Vatican had broken its silence, the enemy’s hands would not have been so free. But most of our compatriots thought only of themselves. Barely was a Jewish home emptied of its inhabitants than they descended like vultures on the abandoned possessions…For them it was a party, a treasure hunt. They were not like our Maria”
“I think of Maria often, with affection and gratitude. This simple, uneducated woman stood taller than the city’s intellectuals, dignitaries and clergy. My father had many acquaintances and even friends in the Christian community, but not one of them showed the strength of character of this peasant woman. Of what value was their faith, their education, their social standing, if it aroused neither conscience nor compassion? It was a simple, devout Christian woman who saved her town’s honour”. (Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, p. 69-70, 1994, Knopf, N.Y)
The Gospels do not tell us if Joseph and his family were the only ones who went as refugees to Egypt to protect their child. However, it does not take much imagination to conclude that they could have been in the company of many other families whose children were at risk of being murdered by a king whose unreasonable fear led to insane action.
Sadly, the history of our world has been dotted with narcissistic and megalomaniacal leaders whose fear of children and innocence has led them to murder. In recent times, we have seen how pregnant Rohingya women refugees have been raped and murdered by soldiers from Myanmar, and their unborn children ripped from their wombs. Isis militia have acted in similar ways in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan because children can grow into enemy soldiers. Moreover, the leaders of Western nations have walled out desperate refugees seeking nothing more than safety and shelter. Herod is still well and truly alive and in power.
Some are threatened by the likes of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who found the voice and courage to berate world leaders in the United Nations for neglecting the impact of climate change on the earth: “How dare you!”, she challenged. When Time Magazine proclaimed her as Person of the Year, 2019, one of the “Herods” of the world tried to ridicule her by telling her to go home and grow up. He then tweeted that he should have been named as Person of the year, totally oblivious of how he was setting himself up for ridicule. Even youths can threaten world leaders. But it’s just possible that today’s gospel is challenging us to stop and look at the Herod that is potentially within each of us. Do we think that we have to be always in control of ourselves and our lives and those with whom we live and work? Are we afraid of the child within us, of accepting our weaknesses and vulnerabilities? Have we hardened ourselves to block out gentleness and tears? The magi in today’s gospel reading are symbols of those who have the noble aspiration of going in search of truth and wisdom. Paradoxically, they found it in a child ushered into the world in the humblest of circumstances. They bypassed the one who craved attention, and that infuriated him to murder children indiscriminately.
The Herod of Jesus’ time has been reincarnated again and again. Elie Wiesel encountered him, and Herod is still alive today. Do we dare challenge him? To do so is to risk much, and even pay a heavy price for our trouble. To stand in solidarity with refugees is to risk infuriating Herod.