Matthew begins his story grounding Jesus squarely as an Israelite – a Jewish child born into the covenant. In fact, Jesus becomes the embodiment of entire people of Israel. Let’s begin with just the family names, for they are rich in history and meaning. Nomen est Omen in Hebrew scripture – your name means something. Jesus’ father Joseph is portrayed throughout the first and second chapter as a man who receives messages through dreams just like his ancestor Joseph from the book of Genesis. Ancestral Joseph, favored son of Jacob, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. In a twist of fate, Joseph offers to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh and, in so doing, gives him a plan to avoid a major famine. Pharaoh elevates Joseph to second in command because of his ability to interpret dreams – and because of this, Joseph is able to bring his family down to Egypt to rescue them from death by famine. Just as ancestral Joseph rescues his family by bringing them to Egypt, so will this Joseph flee to Egypt to save the lives of his family members. Mary is the Anglicized version of the Hebrew name Miriam – the same name as the sister of Moses. Miriam played a role in the liberation of the people when they escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Jesus also bears the name of a liberating ancestor as his name in Hebrew is Joshua – the deliverer. The imagery of Jesus being in Egypt until it was safe to return evokes images of the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Even the violence of the murderous King Herod echoes the cruelty of Pharaoh to the Hebrews. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the absolute embodiment of the covenant God made with Israel.
Matthew then evokes the prophetic eschatological vision of the plan of salvation being more and bigger than just the Jewish people. Jesus has come to reconcile all of the nations into the covenant of Abraham. God’s concern is not just for his chosen people, but indeed God’s concern embraces the whole world. We begin with hearing that a group of Gentile Wise Ones come from the East in recognition of Jesus as Messiah. It is ironic these foreigners know who Jesus is destined to be while Herod rejects this message. Now I know tradition tells us there were three kings, but the narrative only speaks of three gifts. Considering the serious cash value of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I’d venture a guess that there were more than three wise people – and I also say people because Magi were not necessarily male. The image of these foreigners coming evokes the image of Isaiah 60: “Nations will stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.”
But there is a dark side to these foreigners and their acknowledgment of Jesus as king. Matthew tells us that King Herod was frightened “and all Jerusalem with him.” A new king was a direct threat to his power and Herod would have none of it. After being tricked by the Magi who did not return with news of the child, Herod lashed out in murderous rage killing all of the children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to eliminate the possibility of a challenge to his throne or that of his sons. Thankfully, Joseph hearkens to the angel in his dream and flees with his family by night to Egypt.
It is this part of the story where we hear another piece of the salvation of the Gentiles. Egypt, the land of Pharaoh and the reminder of 400 years of bondage for the Jewish people, is redeemed through their welcome of the Holy Family. It is Egypt who provides safety for these terrified Jews on the run. God’s plan of salvation is not bound by ethnicity or national borders! God actually uses the people once feared and hated as enslavers to be those who save the Christ child.
As the Holy Family had to flee for their lives, Matthew tells us exactly where God casts his lot – with the poor, refugees, and outcasts. Jesus and his parents are in solidarity with all of the marginalized and dispossessed of the world. Today we only need turn on our televisions to see images of frightened people fleeing the violence in their own homeland to catch a glimpse of the fear of the Holy Family as they sought protection in a foreign land as aliens. Throughout Jesus’ later ministry, he will reach out to those who were outcasts and marginalized. One cannot help but see how his early childhood in Egypt and the stories about it that his mother and father would tell him would influence his affinity for those on the outside.
The experiences of Jesus and his parents assure us he did not come here to escape the hardness and violence of this world by somehow living in a bubble. They lived in the real world and had to navigate the violence in it. Jesus would later teach us to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry not because these are “nice things” to do – it comes from the very reality that these things we do are what we do for and to him each and every day. For us who live in the relative comfort of the United State in the 21st century, it is hard to understand what it is like to be in the shoes of those who flee for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Quite honestly, our life of relative wealth and leisure puts us more in the camp of the Caesars and Herods than it does the Holy Family. Jesus was the outcast, the refugee, the migrant, the foreigner – it is his face we are to see when we look to those who have need. We are to do these things to honor God who reminded Israel to show hospitality to the stranger and alien because they too had been aliens in the land of Egypt even as now Egypt becomes the image of refuge and care for this family on the run.
Matthew closes this chapter with a reminder of something else – Jesus understands our joys too. We hear of Joseph having another dream and being told it was safe to return to Israel – the Promised Land. The Incarnation isn’t always about suffering and hardship – it’s also about rejoicing! The homecoming of Jesus echoes the return of Israel under Joshua’s leadership and the celebrations which accompanied it. Jesus shares in the joys of our lives as much as in the sorrows and challenges – he knows the fullness, depth and breadth of all of what it means to be human. His return is also a joyous reminder of God’s promises to bring justice and peace to those who live in God’s reign.
The second chapter of Matthew gives us hope in spite of the outer circumstances of our lives and our world. In baptism, we are brought into the family of God in Christ and through the Mystery of the Incarnation Christ comes to us. We are no longer alienated from God, but God has come to us in Christ to share every aspect of our lives and hallow them. We are no longer estranged but brought to the very heart of God through Jesus who gives us the grace and power to then take this gospel to the world, opening our arms like Egypt to all who are in need.