First Sunday of Christmas

Introduction and Call to Worship As our Christmas celebrations continue, we hear how God keeps Jesus safe from the threat of Herod until Herod himself has died. Together let us proclaim the gracious deeds of the Lord who delivers his people from the slavery of sin. Today’s Readings First Reading Isaiah 63:7-9 The prophet speaks of God’s love and compassion towards his people, Israel, and how he has saved them in times of distress. Second Reading Hebrews 2:10-18 We hear that Jesus can identify with us, his brothers and sisters, because he has shared our humanity. He can help us because he understands us and came to bring reconciliation between us and God, our heavenly Father. Gospel Matthew 2:13-end. God warns Joseph of Herod’s intention to kill Jesus and tells him to seek refuge in Egypt. Only when Herod is dead can the family return to Israel and settle in Nazareth. HOMILY “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Matthew 2:15b) "Get up, take the child and his mother…" A few years back, and no doubt driven by a genuine desire to restore the religious aspect of Christmas, the marketing team of our Church of England came up with the slogan “Jesus, the reason for the Season”. It’s not easy to know just how effective this catchy jingle was in igniting the nation’s hunger for a deeper spiritual understanding of Christmas but to be honest, although surely this caption was created with the best of intentions, for me it lacks depth: it almost seems to restrict Jesus to a given couple of week’s time slot! Yet, as we know deep in our hearts, Jesus doesn’t cease to exist once the tinsel has been packed away for another year; he is very much part of our inner being, flowing through our veins as he directs, prepares and strengthens us to live out our lives in the reality of the present world with all its blessings and challenges. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has been breathing inspirational life into those called and appointed to give society something more concrete than another throw-away soundbite, something deeply infectious, similar to what St Joseph experienced: an unbelievable desire to “get up” and take all of whom we love with us. Which is why the current Church of England offering of Follow the Star, the words we have tried to incorporate in our promotional liturgy over this last month, deserves to be praised, for regardless of where a person is in their relationship with God, Christianity is not (as my Spiritual Director points out) a “spectator sport”. Just like St Joseph, God wants us to have a willingness to listen and a desire to trust and ultimately respond for, with the value of spiritual hindsight, in the grand scheme of things it will all make sense. Looking throughout scripture, it is pretty clear that dreams were a common way for men and women to feel connected with God…and if, as in the case of both St Mary and St Joseph, this was future endorsed by the presence of an Angel, you knew it was a request not to be taken lightly. Scholars also explain that the notion of “gathering up all your belongings and seeking sanctuary in the distant land of Egypt” is not as reckless as it might sound, as for centuries before Jesus was born Jewish families facing ethnic or political persecution had sought refuge in Egypt, too. As a result, most Egyptian towns contained a colony of Jews; in fact, the city of Alexandria was said to be home to over one million Jews. Now, while Matthew’s Gospel is very detailed in many aspects of Jesus’ earthly journey, it remains silent on how the Holy Family coped with their journey towards Egypt. However, someone in my former parish once said, one of the gifts the three wise men brought Jesus’ earthly parents was gold, which he suggested would have been very useful for travelling the 430 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt. On the subject of the wise men, he also preached in the same sermon something which has never left me: It is believed by some biblical scholars that those bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh may have belonged to a Persian priestly caste, located somewhere in modern day Iran, which means it wasn’t those whom you might have expected to welcome Jesus and tell the world he was the saving Star, not the respectable Jews or his own people but foreigners who perhaps don’t conform to our views, customs or lifestyles either. Although we are left to our imagination as to what challenges and adventures St Joseph, St Mary and the young Jesus may have encountered on their journey to Egypt, while researching for this reflection I came across a lovely tradition which made be smile: Apparently legend has it that in the first couple of days of the Holy Family’s flight from Herod’s bloodthirsty soldiers they sought refuge in a cave, where a spider was so overcome by the love shining from Jesus’ face that it decided it wanted to do something to keep him and his earthly parents warm and safe. It spun a web over the entrance of the cave and so the soldiers, thinking that if anybody had entered that cave surely they would have broken the web, consequently continued their search for St Joseph, St Mary and Jesus elsewhere. All of which, it is said, is the reason why to this day we put tinsel on our Christmas trees to symbolise the spider’s web that prevented the Holy Family being slaughtered. But once the Holy Family arrived and found their feet in Egypt, the story is not finished, for it is fair to say this land had a chequered history. On one hand, which Matthew’s initial Jewish audience would have instantly recalled, it was the place where Moses, who represented The Law, grew up and where he also returned to release God’s chosen people from their oppression. And isn’t it wonderful, for as we see from Jesus’ earthly ministry, God builds and expands upon this legacy: He had called His Son, not simply to release the Jewish race from their spiritual slavery but rather to bring new life to the whole of humanity. However, on the other hand, Egypt was labelled as a centre of witchcraft: The Talmud tells us, “Ten measure of sorcery descended into the world; Egypt received nine and the rest of the world one.” Consequently, when some enemies of Jesus discovered his early childhood had been spent in Egypt, they attacked him saying it was in Egypt that Jesus had learnt magic and sorcery to deceive people into believing he was performing miracles from God. All of this is difficult to accept, for we need to ask ourselves: would hardy fishermen have been prepared to die for some charlatan? Would, over the next two thousand years, men and women like Fr Damian, Deacon Jo and myself, feel compelled to devote their lives to serving him and his kingdom? However, as we know, the Church was not built solely upon ordained ministers, and surely it is one of the graces of this parish that all three of us are not remotely interested in empire-building; we are not on some ego-trip. And the very fact that each and every one of you has, like St Joseph, felt a stirring deep within that has caused you to get up and be here is a living witness that speaks volumes, proclaiming to the outside world that Jesus was and is the Son of God, the ultimate Star worth following and not some ancient Paul Daniel type character…

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