Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
The Second Sunday after Christmas / Year A
Matthew concludes his story of Jesus’ birth saga with these words: “They made their home in a town called Nazareth.”
Let’s do some historical work this morning by attempting to weave together what the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’s birth and early years. It requires some conjecture because their accounts don’t always sync up and neither writer sets out to create a “straight history” or timeline of events. Still, here is something like what seems to have actually happened:
· Somewhere around 7-4 BC, Joseph and Mary are betrothed (a legal arrangement typically lasting about 12 months) in Nazareth.
· Soon thereafter the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, who most likely is in her early teens, and asks if she will bear God’s Son. She consents.
· Not long after, Mary leaves Bethlehem to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is six weeks pregnant. Elizabeth lives in a town only identified as being in the Judean hills, which places it around a week’s walking journey away.
· Mary returns to Nazareth after three months. She is now visibly pregnant and Joseph, startled to be sure, determines to end the betrothal discretely.
· After an angel speaks to him in a dream, Joseph decides to stay betrothed. Mary moves into his home, but they do not yet become husband and wife and have no relations.
· A census is ordered, requiring Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. Mary goes with him.
· They arrive in Bethlehem and the time comes for Mary to deliver. Accommodations are limited (perhaps due to the number of people travelling for the census) and the couple is forced to stay in an animal shed (or perhaps a cave where animals are kept). It is here Mary gives birth to her baby.
· Shepherds from nearby fields visit the Holy Family after receiving direction from angels. They worship the baby and tell their fantastic story to the parents.
· Jesus is circumcised eight days after his birth.
· Mary makes the appropriate offerings for the Rite of Purification forty days after giving birth.
· Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple where they present him and make an appropriate offering. Here they encounter the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Both praise and bless their infant son.
· The family settles in Bethlehem.
· Sometime within the next year or so a group of Magi, having been guided by ancient prophecies and a star, approach Herod (the local king) to inquire where the new king of the Jews is to be born. Scholars direct them to Bethlehem.
· The Magi go to Bethlehem and find Mary and the child living in a house. They present the child with symbolic gifts and then determine not to report back to Herod.
· Herod orders the killing of all boys two years and younger in the Bethlehem region.
· In a dream, an angel warns Joseph of the danger and the family flees through the Sinai Desert to Egypt.
· The Coptic Church now identifies 26 different places (most located along the Nile River) where the family stops or stays over a three-and-a-half-year period. Joseph keeps his family on the move to avoid detection by Herod’s spies.
· Upon learning of the king’s death, the family sets out to return to Bethlehem but then decides to settle in Nazareth to avoid living in a region under the rule of Herod’s son.
· The family makes a home in Nazareth. Joseph works as a carpenter and he and Mary have as many as six children together, along with Jesus.
By most any standard, Jesus’s first five years are incredibly stressful.
When I was born my parents were in the process of transitioning from Pittsburgh to Ohio. A few months later my mother’s father passed away. I remember none of this, but my sister does. Three years old at the time, she remembers living with grandparents while my parents dealt with the complexities of newborn twins and relocating. It was a stressful time and my sister’s memories mirror this, but they are jumbled images because a childhood mind is not fully capable of understanding all that is happening. Surely Jesus’ earliest memories attempt to make sense of the traumatic and a transient life-style marking his first years.
Then the Holy Family settles in Nazareth where, measured against their beginning, they make a remarkably steady and unremarkable household. As the Scripture attests, they make a home.
Gladys Hunt, in her book Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life, writes this:
What is home? My favorite definition is “a safe place,” a place where one is free from attack, a place where one experiences secure relationships and affirmation. It’s a place where people share and understand each other. Its relationships are nurturing. The people in it do not need to be perfect; instead, they need to be honest, loving, supportive, recognizing a common humanity that makes all of us vulnerable.
I hope this rings true with your experience of home. It may not, and if so I hurt deeply for you. Still, it is something for which we long. So Maya Angelou reminds us when she observes, “The ache for home lives in all of us: The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
St. Luke gives us the last words in the biblical record about Jesus’ childhood: “He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.” We are told the child Jesus advances cognitively and physically while developing morally and socially. Jesus grows into his teens to be smart, strong, good, and well liked. Surely, having a home factors into all of this.
Given today’s lesson, you might ponder the facts of your early years. What was happening in your family of origin when you where born? What blessings did it afford you? What challenges did it present? How are you the product of each? What has been your experience of home? Does it represent safety? Stability? Affirmation? How do you bring the story of your beginning before God and give thanks or vent anger or simply accept the past for the past while being open to the grace and blessings of the future? How have your origins played out in the lives of those in your life today? How might you describe to them the legacies you want to pass on? What mistakes have you inherited and need to claim, asking for forgiveness?
This much we know… Jesus’ earliest years must have marked him, but they did not define him or limit him.