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Displacement at Christmas

Fr. George Smiga
December 29, 2013
Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23

There are two accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. One is in the Gospel of Luke, and the other is in the Gospel of Matthew. These two accounts disagree in several respects. But the most obvious divergence is the difference between the itineraries of the Holy Family.

Luke’s gospel begins in Nazareth where Mary and Joseph are living. They are forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census that was ordered by the Emperor Augustus, and Jesus is born there. After the birth, they return again to their home in Nazareth. Since Luke’s account is the one with which we are most familiar, it is very possible that we do not notice how different Matthew’s story is. Matthew begins in Bethlehem where Joseph and Mary live and where Mary gives birth to Jesus. After the birth, as we hear in today’s gospel, an angel warns Joseph to flee Bethlehem and go to Egypt, because of the dangerous plot of Herod. They stay in Egypt until Herod dies. Then, as we also hear in today’s gospel, an angel tells Joseph to return to Israel. But Joseph is afraid to go back to Bethlehem, because he hears that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now on the throne. So he travels to Galilee and makes his home in the town of Nazareth.

So, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born in Bethlehem and grows up in Nazareth. But the evangelists use different itineraries to get them there. There is also a significant difference in meaning. In Luke’s account, going to Nazareth is a positive event. It is a homecoming, getting things back to normal after the upheaval of the census. But Matthew’s account there is no homecoming. Joseph is afraid to go home. So he chooses instead to go to a new and foreign place called Nazareth in which he will have to find a new place to live, new work, and new relationships. Although Luke’s story is one of homecoming, Matthew’s account is one of upheaval and displacement. But, that is what makes Matthew’s Gospel so useable to us. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth helps us deal with the displacements in our own life.

How often do we find ourselves having to deal with things we did not expect and did not desire? We find ourselves facing divorce, sickness, or the loss of someone we love. We do our best to get through that upheaval, but all the time we are longing for things to get back to normal. We want to go home to the way things were. Yet we often find that after surviving the divorce, after enduring the medical treatments, after adjusting to the loss, we, like Joseph, cannot go home. We cannot find a way to move things back to the way they were. Time has passed. People are missing. We have changed. In time we might establish a regular routine. But it will not be the routine that we had before.

The good news of today’s gospel is that even when there is no homecoming, we do not need to despair. Even when we have to adjust to new and different circumstances, there is still reason for hope. Matthew is very careful to point out that the prophets foretold that Mary and Joseph would live in Nazareth. Even though the town was new to Mary and Joseph, it was always a part of God’s plan.

The same is true for us. When we have to deal with new and foreign circumstances, our faith tells us that those places can still be good and life-giving. We can seldom recover the way things were. But God is faithful. And when God is with us, we can always find a home.

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