Monday, December 27, 2010


When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2.13)

One Vision from Two Versions

Attempting to weave a unified timeline from Matthew and Luke’s Nativity accounts invites madness. The Holy Family, Bethlehem, the Virgin Birth, and (of course) the event’s magnitude are their only common threads. Luke’s version highlights Christ’s humble beginnings: Mary and Joseph are modest people; the Child is quietly born in a stable; angels summon shepherds from the countryside to worship Christ the Savior. Roughly 40 days later, as required by Mosaic Law, Mary and Joseph present Jesus to the Temple priests in Jerusalem. There, a holy man named Simeon confirms the Babe is the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2.32) Luke’s is a tender, heartwarming story.

Matthew’s tone and timing couldn’t be more dissimilar. Since his story is all about Christ the King, he wraps it in august language and political intrigue befitting a monarch. Joseph takes center stage, as his family traces its roots to Abraham—i.e., he comes from royal blood. A star on the eastern horizon captivates eminent astronomers who traverse the Arabian Peninsula to greet the Christ Child. They stop in Jerusalem to pay homage to King Herod, telling him they’re in search of the recently born King of the Jews. Their news troubles Herod and his court. Worse yet, it places Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in mortal danger. After the Magi leave the house where they find the Holy Family—Matthew will have none of this lowly stable business—an angel instructs Joseph: “Get up! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2.13) It’s anyone’s guess how they flee to Egypt, remain there until Herod’s death, and still manage a high-profile appearance six weeks after Jesus is born—in Jerusalem, of all places—in the Temple Herod built, no less—where a prophet announces Jesus is the Child Herod’s scouring the land to locate and destroy. How do we get one vision from two versions?

Why Egypt?

Up to the birth, we sort of blur them together. The accounts basically run in parallel and if we fudge a few details to line up the Wise Men and shepherds for the star-lighted manger scene, well, it’s a small fee in exchange for such a priceless tableau. After the guests depart, however, no amount of buffing can fix the discrepancies between the two stories. If we insisted on reading every word in the Bible as factually true, we couldn’t be sure which to believe. But since Biblical truth transcends trivia like dates and times—and Scripture’s purpose surpasses those of almanacs and textbooks—we can divorce Matthew from Luke to consider what each wants to show us. Luke’s intention behind the Temple presentation is straightforward. He slips in Simeon’s prophecy to establish Christ as the Savior of all humankind, Gentiles and Jews. Matthew is less forthcoming with his reasons for placing Jesus in peril and sending Him in exile as an Infant.

Our first question is, “Why Egypt?” Mary and Joseph just as easily could go east—more easily, actually, as the distance from Bethlehem to Judea’s eastern border is less than a third of the 200-mile trek to Egypt. The angel’s directive somehow seems backwards. Egypt represents everything Christ will defeat: oppression, powerlessness, loss of identity, and death. Yet its remove and reputation are why there’s no better place to go. It’s the last place anyone expects to find Israel’s newborn King. Furthermore, since the Egyptians are religiously isolated from Messianic mindsets, Christ’s anonymity is guaranteed. In many ways, it would be like hiding the infant Dalai Lama in America’s Bible Belt. For all the locals know, Mary and Joseph are merely sojourners; the Child’s identity holds no import for them.

Newness Covers Our Lives

Then, beyond its pragmatic appeal, Egypt’s selection symbolizes something so thrilling we strain to absorb it. The angel tells Joseph to move Christ to Egypt to liberate Israel from its past. God does a new thing here, transforming the site of the Jews’ greatest sorrows into a sanctuary for their highest hopes. Unlike his Old Testament namesake—who enters Egypt as a slave and ushers Israel into bondage—Christ’s presence enables this Joseph to enter and leave Egypt as a free man. The Egyptian shadow is no more. The kingdom of terror and torment is now a safe place.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing that Joseph and Mary don't leave Bethlehem before the angel reroutes them to Egypt. One can hear their loved ones challenge them: “Are you crazy? Egypt is nowhere to raise God’s Child! How did you dream up such an idea? After all our people suffered there, that makes absolutely no sense!” Blinded by deeply imbedded phobias, they’d miss the point. Christ changes everything. Former oppressors become future protectors—often unawares. Hierarchies that divested us of power inadvertently wind up preserving it. Places that stole our identity as God’s people ultimately prove instrumental in restoring it. Villains who threatened our lives unwittingly help us thrive. The past we knew without Christ is no more. God is doing a new thing, and that newness covers our entire lives. It turns wherever we go—not just literally, but as we journey back and forth through our days—into a safe place. The Christ with us, in us, transforms our sites of sorrow into sanctuaries of hope.

Christ comes to liberate us from the past we knew by transforming it with newness that covers our entire lives.

Postscript: “Imagine Me”

I’ve posted this video before, yet its power keeps calling me back. Turn up the volume and as you watch its riveting depiction of a past without Christ and how Christ’s presence changes everything, see your sites of sorrow transform into sanctuaries of hope. Kirk Franklin’s extraordinary ballad, “Imagine Me.” (Lyrics here.)