Today’s reading is from the gospel according to St. Matthew 2:13-23
In this gospel reading we are again invited to enter into the Christmas story. During the Christmas Liturgy we read about the birth of Our Lord and now we are witnesses to the events that surrounded his birth particularly the flight of the holy family into Egypt, the massacre of the innocents of Israel, and the return of the holy family from exile.
Joseph the man betrothed to the Virgin Mary was told by way of a dream to take the child and his mother and leave the land. He did not doubt the message because it was delivered by an angel, just like the original message telling him to take care of Mary and to call the name of her son Yeshua or Jesus. He trusted this messenger and obeyed.
What faith this man St. Joseph must’ve had. If we were visited this night by an angel in a dream telling us to relocate to some place such as New York or California or even China, how many of us would be willing to obey that message? We would make up excuses and convince ourselves that we had not seen an angel and that it had not spoken to us. But not this man Joseph. He had no way of knowing where he would end up or what he would do to keep his family safe, fed and secure but he obeyed. It is in fact a wonderful lesson in faith. When things look bleak and when it seems that there are no safety nets that is exactly when the Lord wants to see what we are made of, whether or not we will be obedient, and likewise, that is exactly when we must be obedient!
The holy tradition delivered from Egypt tell us that the Holy family spent three years in the land of Egypt. So well attested is this tradition that most of the sites visited by the holy family have been dedicated as churches and make up part of a pilgrimage that can be undertaken by those willing to follow in their footsteps. The land of Egypt was quite blessed by the presence of the Holy Family. And what an amazing poetic turn of events it was. If we remember, the Israelites were under the bondage of Pharoah and begged for an escape from the land of Egypt. Now the King of the Israelites was coming back to Egypt looking for protection from his own people. The promised land that God had won by His own might did not even offer a place suitable for the birth of His Son.
The land of Egypt that has often been cursed and chastised by the prophets of God for their idolatry and treatment of his people is now become the safe haven and refuge of the greatest of his people His Son and his precious mother. So special is this treatment and protection in the land of Egypt that it was foretold that this land would be blessed hundreds of years earlier by the holy spirit speaking through the prophet Isaiah.
Is 19:19-22 & 25a “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to the LORD because of the oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them. Then the LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day, and will make sacrifice and offering; yes, they will make a vow to the LORD and perform it. And the LORD will strike Egypt, He will strike and heal it;they will return to the LORD, and He will be entreated by them and heal them. Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people!”
This is the wondrous mercy of God who does not want to curse any nation, any peoples or any individuals but is constantly seeking for a way to make those who are not yet His, a part of His great plan of salvation. God used the defeat of the mighty Pharaoh and Egypt to show His strength and release His people in the story of the exodus, and He again uses Egypt here as a refuge for His mighty son.
I tell you that if God could save the Egypt that brought His people to their knees in bitter tears. And if God could save St. Paul who hunted down the first Christians, then certainly there is no one that God cannot save. Maybe this is the most amazing thing about the Christmas story……that God is always working out His plan for our salvation and for the salvation of the world around us. That God has already forgiven us and is giving us a chance to turn from shunning him or neglecting him in our daily lives as even the Israelites had done. This same God has become a simple babe that wants to grow and be nurtured in our hearts if we will only allow ourselves to also become like Egypt, a warm refuge for His beloved Son. If this is possible for the dreaded Egypt, imagine what is possible for us as Christians!
We can nurture Christ in our hearts by making a place for His word, His teaching in our lives. The Lord says “if you love me, obey my commands.” As we dedicate this safe place in our hearts for the teaching of the Lord, and we cultivate a deep relationship with Him through our prayers and we remove all of the enemies of Christ from our hearts, we will then create a refuge or paradise in our hearts, a place where God can grow and flourish. What or who are the enemies of Christ within our hearts? These are the passions and inclinations and sinful desires as well as our false gods that we might serve or love.
The Lord tells us that “no man can serve two masters.” If we nurture our sinful desires or our false idols such as power, comfort, money and control, we will be feeding and strengthening the enemies of Christ and they will chase Him out of our hearts and out of our lives. All of the life of an Orthodox Christian is to struggle to prepare the way of the Lord, to chase out the money changers of the temple of our heart and to dedicate the temples of our hearts to God the Lord. For this reason we keep vigils, and pray past the point of comfort, we fast and do prostrations, we read psalms, we confess our sins and we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. All of this is done to nourish Christ within our hearts while also doing battle against His enemies, laying siege to them and forcing them into submission or retreat.
Let us run to Christ and His Church as our refuge and let us also make our hearts like Egypt, a refuge and a resting place for the Lord our God to grow and flourish. To Him alone be glory forever and ever AMEN.