The Gospel changes the world by creating communities of reconciling love.
I have devoted my life to that proposition even though I constantly struggle to define and parse nearly every word of it.
Christmas Day makes love seem rather easy in much the same way nostalgia does; it’s not a memory but a wish and wisp. But each year on the fourth day of Christmas, on December 28th, the Church insists on remembering the “Holy Innocents” of Bethlehem and why love matters.
That language sounds rather sweet and cozy, but of course the event was horrific beyond my ability to imagine. The holy innocents were all those infant male children slaughtered by order of King Herod to protect his own throne (Matthew 2:16). After being warned about this impending disaster by an angel, Joseph packed up Mary and the baby Jesus and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:13).
There’s a wonderful irony in the Holy Family’s flight from Herod’s egomaniacal wrath. The one announced by angels as the “savior” flees to the very land in which his own people had been slaves many centuries before. The place of exodus becomes the place of safe return.
Were Mary and Joseph just a bit chagrined by fleeing for their lives to the nation that had once tormented their people? Did they find that galling? Scary? Did they have to present government-issued I.D. to cross a secure border? Where did they stay when they arrived? Were they welcomed? Shunned?
I wonder what Mary and Joseph talked about during their flight. Did they strategize about how they might blend in, not attract attention? Did they muse over ancient history and how much they really ought to despise Egyptians? Did they worry about meeting as much violence as the kind they were fleeing?
Or did they, perhaps, learn something about love on their flight and during their sojourn? They were, after all, transporting divine love incarnate. How might that have inflected their posture toward their ancient enemy?
Did the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt set the tone for the whole Gospel? Could it be that the key to the whole thing is to learn how to love people who are different from us? Or even more, to love people whom we really ought to despise and who may have done us significant harm?
Could the Gospel change the world by creating communities of reconciling love?
I really do think so, but it will mean enduring flights of profound discomfort into territory that does not feel like home and where we are really scared and can’t imagine how we’ll survive let alone love anything at all.
I have no recipe to follow here, just a trail through a desert traced in the lines of an ancient text. There I sense or intuit something about love that I still need desperately to learn.
There are so many whom I could so easily and naturally and understandably and even justifiably despise: brutal police officers killing unarmed black people, corporate CEOs destroying the planet, the Islamic State beheading people at every turn, the Christian fundamentalists who destroy LGBT lives every year…the list goes on and on and on in a spiral of rage, hate, and still more violence.
I could so easily despise them all, and it would change nothing. Despising all those people will just keep the world exactly as it is.
Instead, I’m going to hop on that donkey over there and join the Holy Family on their flight. I really want to eavesdrop on the conversation. I might, and indeed, I’m sure I will learn something about world-changing love. It has always been fragile, but bright; flickering, but tenacious; seemingly innocuous, but oddly piercing and brilliant.
Just like the child fleeing for safety to the land of his former captors.