In the week between Christmas Eve and today, we have celebrated Christmas with food, drink, gifts, decorations and parties. We have observed the dawn of the new millennium—depending on our personality—by withdrawing cash from the bank, filling the car up with gas, going to parties or awaiting the second coming. Yet here we find ourselves in church on a normal Sunday morning. We’re still here, the sun is still shining and the days are following, one upon the other ,as they have done since the dawn of time.
So what are we to say today? In the interstices between Christmas Day and Christmas II, the church has dropped a few hints. On days we have hardly noticed, the church chooses to remember two people and one event. On the day after Christmas, the church gives thanks for the life of St. Stephen. Remember him? He was the first person to be die because he followed the risen Lord. He was stoned to death by those who wanted to maintain the status quo. The day after that, the church commemorates the horror of the death of the children King Herod slew. Children he had massacred believing he could control the future of his world by killing the child Jesus. The king who mistook human-centered power as more powerful than divine love. By contrast, on the third day the church celebrates the life of St. John the Evangelist, the apostle whose whole life was an expression of love and who told of the good news of God’s saving grace in the unforgettable gospel of John.
Three things. Three hints. One, Stephen’s response to the love of God so strong it could not be abandoned even in the face of death. Two, the heart-wrenching reality of a world which is ruthless in attempting to achieve its own ends. Three, a life so suffused with divine love that it speaks to us across two thousand years with the same freshness and authenticity with which it was first heard.
What are these three things to us? Faith, evil, and love.
Here we sit at the start of a new era. Turning the clock to 00 feels like a fresh start. If the millennium has any significance for us, it has to lie in that sense of the blank page. A chance to begin again. To believe that the human muddle can yield to a fresh approach. That this time we can achieve balance and peace. It was striking to hear journalists speak of the uncommonly friendly atmosphere in Times Square during the celebrations. But how does goodwill, kindness, become embedded in human affairs? And does it make any difference anyway?
As human beings, we tend to prefer grand schemes to bring about change—the illusion that big plans bring about big results. The gospel points, however, to the significance of each life lived, particular acts of particular people. Small beer by the standards of the world. It is true sometimes, those small ones can lead to grand things. And much greatness is born in the seed of human kindness.
And that is what Joseph’s rescue of his baby wife and child is all about. Joseph was nothing if not kind. An ordinary man, a husband and father, looking out for the well-being of those for whom he cared. Ostensibly he was merely taking them to a safer place. He was protecting them from the threat of the great schemer—King Herod the Great.
As he sped through the night, I have often wondered, did he make the connection between his journey down to Egypt and Joseph the patriach being taken captive to Egypt over a thousand years before? For it was that journey that led to the enslavement of his people under pharaoh. An enslavement so terrible that they believed they had been abandoned by God. Yet it was in that same Egypt that God raised up the man Moses to lead his people to freedom.
By reentering Egypt, Joseph and his family were joining the long procession of men and women who have found themselves on the outside. People for whom the world rarely stops and would scarcely notice if they were to disappear. By going down into Egypt, Jesus came alongside the disenfranchised, the insignificant, and the powerless. For Moses the strength of his character was molded by the discovery that he was not truly a prince of Egypt. That he was by birth one of the poor and marginalized himself. It was the discovery of his true identity that empowered him to bring his people out of anonymity into significance, out of captivity into freedom, out of doubt into faith. Exodus.
So it is that in Egypt Jesus must have begun the discovery of his own call. Jesus’ going down into Egypt is Jesus’ coming to re-tell the Exodus story through the living of his own life. By entering the place where his people suffered he enters all of human life. He comes alongside the broken and wounded, the insignificant and the invisible people of the world. And it is in that moment of entering that God bestows upon him the title, Son of God.
When he and his family return from Egypt, Jesus returns to a life much like yours and mine. Except for this: it will lead him to a cross before it shows him an empty tomb. Jesus did not shirk human experience. He didn’t fake it—he lived it up to his neck. He knew fear and hurt, joy and satisfaction, just as we do. We can trust this Jesus, because his was a life full of the seeds of human kindness. And Jesus, the man of kindness, embodied the power of love to transform.
Lest we should think of this as “that was then and this is now,” lest we should find this call to kindness weak or unattractive, it is well to look at its power in the world around us. New Year’s Eve celebrations in South Africa were marked by Nelson Mandela’s return to the prison on Robin Island where he had been held captive for seventeen years. Imprisoned to prevent his people throwing off the chains of apartheid. Dancers drummed the hallway of the prison, dispelling the darkness of suffering. When it was complete Mandela walked to his old prison cell, where he lit a candle and, carrying it from that place much as we carry the Paschal Candle in procession at the Easter Vigil, he handed this light to his successor with the simple word—freedom. Darkness had been dispelled in the fragile and precious light of a new day. And light in South Africa will not be maintained by grand schemes but by the individual witness of compassionate individuals.
So we have come full circle. Stephen, who chose love above life, the children who suffered death at the hands of human evil, and the witness of the man John, who lived the life of love to the end.
This year 2000, then, brings to mind our desire to be free, our longing for the world to be in balance, our tenderness for peace. It reminds us once again of God’s call to love. To take responsibility for our loving. To plant seeds of kindness. To take care of each other. To watch out for the lost and the lonely, the insignificant and the poor. To choose the love which is life that we also may be the sons and daughters of God.