By Father Casey Shobe
The readings we hear in Advent are some of my favorites. It’s when we hear about the wily bug eater John the Baptizer, when we hear Paul’s hopeful messages to the Church in Rome, and when we hear several of the prophet Isaiah’s dramatic visions of a peaceable world. I love all of them, and as a preacher, it’s hard to pick each week, but this year Isaiah has particularly held my attention. I need to hear Isaiah’s vision of what the world is intended to be like, and to remember that God is pulling our oft-resistant world toward that ultimate reality.
But I also know how easy it is to set Isaiah’s prophesies aside. In my experience, people commonly view them as 1) something that mostly had to do with Isaiah’s day, long ago, 2) something that may ultimately come true, but a long time from now in the future, or 3) beautiful poetry that is meant to inspire but is totally disconnected from reality.
We must resist the temptation to treat them this way. The stories of the Bible are not snow globe fairy tales, and they are about God’s desires for today as much as yesterday or tomorrow. When we turn them into something safely removed from us, we are keeping God out of our lives and opposing God’s will to bring about the redemption and hope they offer.
It’s not just the visions of Isaiah that we do this to. Never has a story become so sentimentalized and domesticated as the Nativity. The way it is often depicted, it seems like Mary and Joseph preferred to spend the night in a barn or cave with animals, that Mary barely ruffled her dress delivering the baby, and everyone just stood around in tableau, sweetly gazing at the manger for days.
Friends, this story is astoundingly beautiful, but it is not sweet! A journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been hard and expensive, childbirth is called labor for a reason, and shepherds were not viewed as lovable locals, but as dirty outsiders, so their arrival must have seemed strange.
And then there’s Herod.
As I’ve said before, it’s too bad more Christians don’t say “Keep Herod in Christmas” this time of year, because his absence from our yard art and pageants is perhaps the biggest factor in our domestication of the Nativity. Herod was a brutal tyrant, someone who had a wife and three sons executed to protect his power, so when Matthew’s gospel says he had all the male infants of Bethlehem slaughtered out of fear of a rival, we can believe it. Keep this in mind when you reflect on the beginning of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It’s not an abstract idea, but a reference to very real darkness in the form of very real human evil. Matthew’s gospel says that, fearing for their safety, Joseph and Mary flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rage.
This is the part of the story too often overlooked, and it’s a part of the story that makes it supremely relevant to today. The definition of a refugee, according to the United Nations, is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” That is precisely the case with the Holy Family, who fled from the jurisdiction of Herod because of their well-founded fear of Herod’s brutality. By definition, then, the Holy Family are refugees.
And not just according to the UN. When you read the story in the original Greek, the flight to Egypt is inspired by an angel who appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “(transliterated) Egertheis paralabe to paidion kai tēn mētera autou kai pheuge eis Aigypton,” or “Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt (Mt 2:13).” The word translated “flee” is the Greek word pheuge, from which we get our modern word refugee. So don’t take the UN’s word for it, or mine for that matter; listen to the angel.
This is why it’s so important to break the stories of the Bible out of a snow globe or the fairy tale corner of our imagination and bring them into contact with us today. It becomes much harder to oppose refugee resettlement or compassionate treatment of desperate migrants when you realize the Lord you follow was one. If more Christians would recognize the story of our Savior in the plight of the 70 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes today, a tremendous amount of human suffering would no doubt end.
In the next few weeks, we’re going to hear more from Isaiah, as well as many of our most beloved stories from the gospels. I hope you’ll embrace their hope, and allow it to swell your heart and soul. I also hope you’ll keep them from being trapped inside the casing of sentimentality, and allow them to inspire your understanding of God and the world today. Our Savior came long ago, and he promises to come again. And in the meantime, we get to be his hands and feet today, bringing about the goodness and peace he intends for our world.
Fr. Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Mtr. Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Fr. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.
Tryptic images taken by Robert Hacker and John Makowski