The beginning of any teaching of biology starts with defining what this subject, the science of life, is about. One of the five defining features of all life is movement, or migration, in some form or another. That movement, that response to a stimulus, is intended to bring about some: food, warmth, a new habitat or home, a partner, escape from danger, and so on. Without movement death inevitably follows at some point. Movement and migration are also at the heart of today’s gospel reading, where we hear of the infant Jesus being taken first to Egypt and then to Nazareth, to avoid danger, and death. The parallels between this story and today’s continuing news of forced migration of millions of people today are obvious.
During the last year many of us have found both the pace of movement or change in the world and its direction have been disturbing. A quite critical change is going on: we didn’t expect a vote to leave the EU, or strong so-called populist support for the hard right in Europe, or the election of a capricious and politically naïve president of the world’s most powerful country, a person who speaks to the world by Twitter. Unpredictability is about, and we are unsure about why we are in what is uncharted territory.
A recent commentator remarked that this upheaval is happening during the biggest migration in human history – the movement of the majority of the world’s population onto the internet. It is now estimated that 3.2 billion people have entered personal, sensitive, and sometimes highly confidential information on the internet in relation to banking, shopping, business, news and information, searches for partners, photographs, social life and their sense of themselves with the world around them. So, we ask, what kind of place have many of us here migrated to? Is it a real world or a virtual world? It seems to be a world where abundant abuse or cybercrime are not quite real. We cannot be completely confident about the reliability or privacy of what we see or do on the internet. There seems to be a very limited ethical background to what is going on. And a linked and fundamental problem is that there is no forward planning for a stable, safe and reliable community based on the internet. Those who thrive here are the loudest, the most fearless and those with nothing to lose. That is what the internet has brought to our political, social and ethical life. Twenty or more years ago the idealists for the internet predicted that this revolution would bring about inclusive, progressive, creative, and honest global communication for all. Some of this has certainly come about, but the people of real power, and huge wealth, in this unstable, very fast moving and largely amoral world, tend to be from a narrow group of people: young, white and male.
That is a view of the disturbed world to which we are all migrating. Just days after singing songs of heavenly bliss our readings today are about a similarly disturbed world into which the Son of God was born. The parallels between the Biblical stories of migration and today’s experiences for millions of people are uncanny. We cannot isolate our Christmas joy from the realities of today’s world.
In today’s readings Matthew is really the storyteller while the passage from Hebrews offers us a theological perspective: God brought the pioneer of our salvation into a world of suffering from his birth. The Son through whom God speaks to us was in great danger as a toddler and Joseph was quick to see this and to take his family as refugees.
Joseph and Mary probably settled with the Jewish community in Egypt. Today’s Coptic Christians in Egypt are proud that their country offered sanctuary to the Son of God. They are glad that a place of slavery became a place of sanctuary. For all the joy we have shown in our carols, the incarnation happened in a place of fear for survival, and Joseph and Mary almost certainly continued to live in fear after their return to Israel. But Mary and Joseph will have been familiar with today’s words of Isaiah: it was no messenger or angel but God’s presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
The author of the Letter to The Hebrews reminds us that although Mary and Joseph lived in fear of death and were being severely tested during their migration, they would also have sensed the assurance of God’s grace, mercy and the profoundest love. However fragile their situation must have been, they were strengthened by their faith in God’s love, just as their forbears, the descendants of Abraham, were as they too were forced to migrate.
Put another way, today’s readings begin the move from Bethlehem into the larger world of human weakness. Already our song is moving from the theme of “the king has come” to the theme of “the king has come to die and then to rise again”.
As we begin to move prayerfully through another uncertain year, today’s deeply theological collect reminds us of God’s wonderful gift to us, and it gives us a wonderfully reassuring view of our future:
Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image, and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
May we, wonderfully created and restored by God, be moved and transformed in this new year, whatever it may bring, by sharing more fully in the divinity of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.