The Sunday before Epiphany
January 4, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton
It has been difficult to concentrate on this gospel, given all that has been happening this week in the very land where this gospel story takes place. It’s difficult to comprehend the fullness of the story.
I’m sure even the people on the ground in Jerusalem on Gaza have a hard time wrapping their heads around the truth.
Some of my friends who have been to Israel have come home decidedly pro-Palestinian and warn me all the time about the pro-Israeli biased of the US news reports. One of my friends, an Episcopal priest, wrote this note about her visit just two months ago,
“Over the past many months (the Israeli’s) have turned back all supplies of food, medicine, water, and humanitarian help. No one can get out or in (of Palestine) without Israeli permission. I stood at the Erez border crossing and watched bored Israeli soldiers refuse entry to humanitarian groups -- from Doctors without Borders to groups from France and the International Red Cross and even two cars of UN workers. Eventually they let a few through.
Although the group I was in (all four of us) had received permission from the Israeli government to enter Gaza, two of us were kept out. When asked the reason, the guard shrugged her shoulders and turned away. All of this while an Israeli soldier walked back and forth in front of us with his submachine gun ready to be used.”
One has to keep in mind, of course, that Hamas, known terrorists, are now the governing party in Palestine. So, to keep informed, I’ve read daily reports in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, and Al Jazeera, the Arab news service, along side the BBC news and compared them all to CNN and the US News reports.
They each sound as if they are talking about a The War ‘Someplace Else’. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian men, women, and especially children are being killed every day. The Israeli casualties pale in comparison.
Well, depending on which report you read. The Anglican Hospital in Gaza is only reporting that they are overwhelmed with casualties and fatalities.
There are no good guys in war. Only dead people.
Which begs the question, do the numbers of innocent people who die equal who is right and what is wrong? It is heartbreaking and terrifying and confusing and yes, confounding.
I fear that the soil in Jerusalem and Palestine is soaked with so much blood and has absorbed so much suffering and hatred that there will be no chance for anything to grow – new life, hope, peace, joy, love – in that land for generations.
This is all happening in a place we call ‘The Holy Land.’ This is all happening not far from the setting of today’s gospel story. Interesting . . . this gospel story ends on an ominous note: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The story continues with an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, warning him that Herod is about to search for his son. Joseph bundles up Mary and Jesus and, following the directions of the angel, “departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.” (Mt. 2:13-15).
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he “flew into a furious rage and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and all in that region who were two years old or under . .” It’s the event known in our Christian calendar as the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, which we observed on the 29th of December. It seems that the more things change, especially in the Holy Land, the more they stay the same.
In his Christmas Eve Sermon at the Carol Service held at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Bishop Dawani, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem on Gaza, in the presence of Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayaad spoke of the Gift of Love “that gives us strength to respect the human dignity of all people, Christian, Muslim and Jews alike,” he said, “we are all created in the Image of God”.
The Bishop continued by saying, “The world waits in eager expectation for people of good will, courage and vision to set aside personal agendas, to encourage the change of heart, to empower all people of faith to tear down the walls of cruelty, fear and hatred. We cannot diminish or escape from the challenges before us which are very real and confront our people. Peace, a just durable peace, is rooted in the reconciling love of God for all the people of this land”.
The good bishop is, of course, right. Peace can only be obtained through understanding that we are all created in the image of God, and that we must – every Christian, Muslim and Jew alike – be committed to and work for the reconciling love of God who earnestly desires that we all become one.
But, I wonder . . . I wonder if this present situation, like the one so many thousands of years ago, isn’t in need of a wee bit of a miracle? I wonder if just a touch of ‘divine intervention’ isn’t in order?
I wonder if we don’t need to have simple men dreaming dreams of safety and security for their families? I wonder if we don’t need a few angels whispering in the ears of wise men who don’t do what the ruling powers expect of them.
I’m willing to bet that both Israelis and Palestinians alike are sick of living with the bloodshed and death and fear. I’m sure both Israeli and Palestinian people know that no wall that has divided a city has ever brought peace. I’m willing to bet that if you asked the people of Israel and Palestine what they would do to end the war and bring about peace, the first thing they would do is tear down that wall.
We are almost to the end of Christmastide. The 12 Days of Christmas end in just two days, on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. It is the day we celebrate the manifestation of God to three wise men, who saw The Light of God in a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
We will enter into the Epiphany Season, and our gospel stories will all be about the miraculous manifestations of God in Christ Jesus. We’ll hear them over and over again until the beginning of Lent.
So, I wonder as we wander around this newest outbreak of unholy war in the Holy Land, if there are any lessons, any in-breaking of the Light of wisdom and insight, we may learn from this gospel story.
Might it be that sometimes, the best way to avoid conflict is to walk away from it, as the wise men did? Or, perhaps one takes another route around it, and waits for things to settle down, the way Joseph did?
Scripture holds no easy answers – even though conflict was averted for the Holy Family, the King felt ‘tricked’ and set out to murder innocent babes and children anyway. Even so, we are, like St. Paul, “prisoners of hope”, people who live in the darkness of the shadow of war who have seen a Great Light.
We pray with the psalmist that God ‘will redeem their lives from oppression and violence and dear shall their blood be in his sight.’ Psalm 72:14)I wonder if, for that to happen, God’s holy people in that Holy Land, may need to be willing to see God in an entirely new way – not as a mighty warrior strong to save, but as vulnerability wrapped in poverty, as fragile as newborn hope, waiting to be picked up and held, comforted and cherished, loved more than life itself, and served beyond borders that divide us and over walls that defend the illusion that we are safe from each other.
May God’s Holy Light shine on and inspire all of God’s Holy people, now in this season of Light and forever.
Let there be peace on earth and good will to all of God’s people – and let it begin with me.