Monday, January 3, 2022

The Flight of the Holy Family & The Suspension of In-Person Worship


Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Christmas 2 / Year C

How was your Christmas?  Mine?  Meh.  In fact, almost everyone I know had a Christmas ranging from subdued to downright joyless.  Families opted not to get together.  Travel plans were cancelled.  And, of course, here at St. Paul’s we suspended in-person worship.  In the past we derived some level of comfort and meaning from virtual worship and family zooms, but the sun has set on that day to be sure.  Virtual pales in comparison to being together.

Based on what I have learned this past week about Covid cases in our parish family, I am convinced people would have been exposed at both of our Christmas Eve services by folks who were contagious, but not symptomatic at the time.  While the adage better safe than sorry applies, it does not fill the void left empty by not celebrating Christmas Eve together in this place or by gathering free of fear with family and friends.

As I ponder today’s first reading from Jeremiah, the prophet’s vision of restoration and renewal describes so accurately the journey we have been on since returning to in-person worship last May through the Fourth Sunday of Advent:

·       A remnant of Israel will return.

·       Those who have been scattered will be gathered together.

·       The flock will have a Shepherd.

·       They will be consoled and shall be radiant.

·       They will be like a watered garden and never languish again.

·       The women will dance and the men will be merry.

·       Mourning will give way to joy, sorrow to gladness.

·       The priests will have their share of fatness (insert punchline here) and the people will be satisfied.

All of these images describe the feeling I had about our parish life as we prepared to celebrate a festive Christmas here.  We were experiencing first-hand what the author of the 84th Psalm so wonderfully describes:

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!

  My soul has a desire and longing

for the courts of the Lord;

  my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house!

  they will always be praising you.

For one day in your courts is better

than a thousand in my own room,

  and to stand at the threshold

of the house of my God

  than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

After being unable for so long to worship in this space, we returned with a new and deep appreciation for this place.  After having been isolated from one another for so long, we returned with a new and deeper awareness of how much we value the people we know here.  Attendance was growing.  The Choir was back.  Families supported several outdoor special events.  Finances are holding steady.  We are pursuing a new and exciting outreach opportunity.  While many of my clergy colleagues are down in the dumps about what is (or is not) happening in the churches they serve, I am the rare priest who is optimistic and enthused about what is going on in my ministry context.

And then came Christmas.  It felt like running into a brick wall I did not see coming. 

From this morning’s Gospel reading we learn the idyllic image of the Creche scene does not linger for long.  Ominous signs abound.  The real possibility of danger permeates the air.  If you read the text carefully you will discover the magi visit Jesus, not in the stable on the night of his birth, but in a home when he is a child, most likely less than two.  So the events we read about today don’t happen in real time as rapidly as they happen in liturgical time.

Still, Joseph, who like his namesake from the Book of Genesis, is a dreamer, receives a troubling message from an angel while in a deep sleep.  I am sure he and Mary moved to flee Bethlehem with the same speed we moved to suspend in-person services.  The Holy Family, which was settled around family and friends, become refugees in Egypt (of all places) where once God’s people were enslaved.  It must have been a dark and disheartening time for them. 

Sadly, so many in our world today can empathize with them, knowing first-hand what it is to be a refugee.  Just last month Episcopal Migration Ministries resettled its 100,000 person since being formally established in 1980.  That is quite a milestone and it is good to know our church is working to welcome refugees just as various people and communities in Egypt welcomed the Holy Family.  Young Jesus experienced firsthand who he was to become: “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Through the vehicle of dreams God gives Joseph both warnings and guidance.  And Joseph is wise enough and faithful enough to pay attention to what he is being told and to act upon it, no matter how unwanted or inconvenient it may be.  I can’t say God has ever spoken to me in a dream, but I do believe we are offered the same spiritual guidance and warnings through the collective insight of our parish family, and especially through the leaders on our Vestry.  Sometimes the guidance we discern is problematic, but always it is necessary.

The good news in today’s reading is found in Jeremiah’s vision of restoration and renewal.  What we experienced in the second half of 2021 is but a foretaste of what is to come.  And the good news in today’s reading is found in the joy the poet of the 84th psalm experiences by being in God’s house.  We will know this joy again, hopefully sooner rather than later.  And the good news in today’s reading is, like the Holy Family, our time as refugees is necessary for our own health and safety.  Like them, God is with us to see us through.  And like them, our time of exile one day will come to an end.