Holy Refugees

January 1, 2017

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley, using Hebrews 2.10-end, Matthew 2.13-end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 1st January 2017, the Second Sunday of Christmas.

A happy new year to you all.  May it be a good and happy one for us all.

You may remember an advertising campaign by The Times, some years ago: ‘Top people take The Times’ and the like. One of the posters claimed, ‘80% of bishops take The Times’. On the bottom of one, some wag scribbled, ‘The other 20% buy it’.

This tale has nothing whatsoever to do with today’s Gospel or anything else. It just appeals to me, and might brighten the New Year.

Today’s Gospel reading starts with The Flight into Egypt, after the three magi have left Bethlehem.  It’s a little confusing, as we don’t commemorate the arrival of the magi until next Friday, the Epiphany, but that’s the Church’s Year for you. Anyway, after the magi have left, you’ll remember, Joseph has a dream which warns him to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape the coming wrath of King Herod. The magi had previously told Herod they believed the king of the Jews was shortly to be born in Bethlehem, and on that basis, the murderous Herod had all the children in the Bethlehem area aged 2 or under slaughtered to prevent the arrival of a rival king on the scene. Bethlehem was not a large town, and it may be that about 20 or 30 young children were involved.  Not a vast number by modern standards, but it was still an horrific mass murder, and Joseph’s family had been right to go into temporary exile. There would have been a Jewish community in Egypt who would give them shelter until it was safe to return.

So the holy family became refugees, fleeing a despotic and desperate regime, as have so many other families and children over the ages, escaping persecution or war. I hardly need remind you of the children from the Calais Jungle. Britain has admitted just 200 unaccompanied children.  Most have been satisfactorily resettled, but there have been reports of some getting lost to the authorities and some even being recruited into prostitution. Meanwhile, there are many more children in France, being pushed around from pillar to post, with some of those most at risk, I read, being assisted to sue the British Government for failing in a basic duty of care by not admitting them too. I’m not sure which is the most apt parallel, the Holy Innocents or the refugee Holy Family.

And then there are those terrible reports of families washed up on Mediterranean shores. And the families and children of Aleppo, with the total death toll in Syria is estimated at around half a million.

And so to Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and the rest, motivated by vicious militancy, deliberate and factional. The horrors were brought home to my wife and me last summer, when, if we hadn’t left the main autoroute south due to impossibly dense traffic, we would have been in Nice, conceivably on the Promenade des Anglais, when the terrorists struck. And then, on the way home, where should we stop for fuel but in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on the edge of Rouen, as gendarmes convoys sped past, sirens blazing – in immediate response, it turned out, to the murder of the elderly priest saying Mass.

We did not, of course, suffer one whit. But what of the thousands who have suffered, who have lost their lives or their relatives or continue to endure injuries? Often the victims of extreme Islamic terrorists are Christians, deliberately targeted as such.  Apart from Syria there have been: the recent bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo; 12 Christians murdered in a Kenyan guesthouse in October; 45 Christians, mostly women, children and the elderly, massacred in Nigeria in November, with houses and churches destroyed; thousands of Christians killed or ethnically cleansed in Sudan, with a UN report describing burnings alive, suffocations, hangings from trees and the like; and Iranian Christian refugees in a German camp being persecuted by their fellow Islamic refugees, who call them ‘apostates’ and ‘infidels’. Mosul, in Iraq, sometimes described as ‘the cradle of Christianity’, had a Christian population of about 35,000, now reduced to about two dozen. Christianity can incur cost, and, for many, martyrdom is not just a historical feature but a current risk.

This is perhaps not the cosiest of topics for the Christmas season or New Year’s Day, but it is, I hope you agree, reality. I wonder how many of you remember the regular Guardian newspaper cartoonist, Papas.  On Christmas Eve 1969, the front page of The Guardian featured a large cartoon by Papas.  It showed Santa Claus reading a book to a little boy sitting beside him on the grass.  The book is called ‘The Christmas Story’.  The little boy is asking: ‘. . .and how did it end?’.  The answer is in the cartoon, because, looming behind them, unseen by them, is the figure of Jesus on the Cross.  This was such an impressive statement by The Guardian, and it might not happen today.  I wrote to Papas on the Greek island where he retired, and obtained his permission to reproduce the cartoon on the front of parish magazines. Maybe the Cathedral would like to use it one day.

Jesus’s sharing in humanity’s suffering is the theme of today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews:

It was fitting that God . . . in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. . . .  Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

So Christ is with his people in their suffering. And what are we to do?  What can we do to help? Winchester has resettled three Muslim Syrian refugee families happily in the City, and Christian people, among them some from the Cathedral community, have been prominent, indeed very generous, in enabling them to be housed, to settle and to integrate. St Peter’s Catholic Church people too have been magnificent in their financial response. And Bishop Tim has instituted a fund to help resettlement across the Diocese.

But what can we offer on the international scale?  We can lobby for more generosity on the part of our Government.  If the Government is to be more open in generous welcoming, they need to be assured that the people are with them, and that controlled immigration by needy refugees, particularly Christian refugees, is not an electoral threat but a positive contribution to the nation’s welfare.

Above all, we can contribute to a human, world-wide web of simple human kindness that will make violence and inhumanity less likely. You’ve heard of the Butterfly Effect, no doubt: the proposition that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in, say, China, can eventually cause a tornado in, say, Mexico. It’s like that. Simple kindness is infectious, and contributes to the mass of goodness that can reach and affect politicians and leaders of all kinds, even politicians and leaners in Putin-land, in Trump-land and in Assad-land.

Years ago, when we lived in wonderful Birmingham, I was driving our then-teenage daughter to meet her friends in the city centre after Christmas.  True to teenage form, we’d no sooner set off than she announced she had no money and asked for a paternal loan.  So we stopped at a bank, and I went to the ATM to make a withdrawal.  For some reason, the machine swallowed my card. ‘Don’t worry, mate’, said an unknown voice behind me in the queue. ‘I’ll let you have a tenner’.  ‘But how will I get it back?’, I asked.  ‘Oh, don’t worry about that’, said the stranger. ‘You’ll find a way’. The incident has never left me.  Such simple and unexpected kindness.

I won’t mention New Year resolutions. But maybe that’s as good a note as any on which to start this New Year.  Happy New Year.