Since about mid-August Leo, my cat, has been hiding behind the sofa in the Parlour on the second floor of the Rectory. This is the fourth time he has found himself a hiding place since he was brought to me from the streets as a kitten – about one every year of his life. He has lived under a window seat, behind a different sofa on the third floor, under my bed, briefly in a closet, and now behind the sofa in the Parlour. Leo’s life is ruled by fear, given real shape in the form of my two Labrador Retrievers, Baxter and Ozzie, whose enthusiasm to befriend the cat and play with him, Leo mistakes for threats to his person. To borrow the image from the Gospel story this morning of the flight of the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus) out of Bethlehem, Leo is in Egypt. His most recent flight came in the aftermath of a visit from my two five-year old nephews, who shared a room with Leo. Their exuberant presence drove him into the closet for four days, but eventually he sought sanctuary on a different story of the house. It took me several days to locate him in his new Egypt, and then to move his food and water and litter box, so that he could establish himself in that new land.
I would like to think that angels speak to Leo in his dreams, and that his movements are the result, as they were for Joseph, of his confidence in God. But if that were so, Leo might take flight with the conviction that God cares for him, and has a plan in mind for the universe and even for every kitten under heaven. But I am certain that Leo has no faith in what we used to call God’s Providence – the certainty that somehow, mysteriously, God is guiding all things by his divine, gracious, and merciful will. But Leo has no trust in God, no confidence in God, no faith in God. Leo flees from one Egypt to the next and never gets to Nazareth to grow up and let God’s plan unfold – in which he would learn to be brave enough to spar with Labradors, and in his spare time, sit in my lap or bask in the sunshine on the window sill.
If, on one of his flights to one of his Egypts, Leo were to stop at a resort on the Dead Sea he might learn a funny irony: the Dead Sea is so called because it is so salty nothing can live in it, but it is also so buoyant as a result of its high salt content that it is almost impossible to drown in it. Dive in and you will feel yourself pushed up, almost as if by a strong set of arms that will not let you sink. It is a remarkable feeling, I can tell you. Or at least, Leo might, on one of his journeys to Egypt, have allowed himself a dip in the Mediterranean, and reminded himself that if you just lie back and relax in the water you will float, but if you are tense and thrash about, you will struggle to stay above water. But when Leo gazes across the sea to Egypt he never believes he can float – he is sure he will drown. So he always travels by land, and always at night.
So much for Leo, poor thing. But the story of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is not told as an exercise in kitten welfare, it is told for you and for me, who have been known to flee in fear to our own Egypts. Angels are not often instructing most of us in our dreams, so it remains a question of faith and confidence and conviction about God’s love and care how we respond when we find ourselves fleeing in fear. Can you at least identify with Leo a little bit? Do you know what it feels like to want to hide behind the sofa? I do.
If the angels are not sent to give us instructions, though, it remains to be seen whether we will model our lives on Leo’s and stay there behind the sofa, until the next threat comes along and we go in search of a new Egypt. How tiresome this life must be, moving from one exile to another, and never finding the way to Nazareth where we can finally grow up! Joseph had his angels to bolster the faith that was given to him in his dreams. It’s not that he was without fear; it’s not that the way was easy, or that the outcome was guaranteed, or that there would be no challenge, no sadness, no losses on the way. It’s just that Joseph trusted that God was leading him and his little family in the way they had to go, and so he would not let himself be paralyzed by fear, even though there was ample cause to be frightened.
If angels are not sent to you and to me, then we can at least rely on Joseph’s angels, since we have been given the story. There will always be times in our lives that fear comes creeping or storming into the room. Now what? You can take flight, like Leo, and only ever make it from one Egypt to the next. But will you ever get to Nazareth? Will you or the child Jesus you have in your care ever grow up? Another way of asking this is to ask, do you believe that God is guiding you and the whole universe by his divine hand – no matter how remotely? Do you believe there is a reason to get to Nazareth, that there is something to grow up into?
So many people these days have given up on the idea that God has a desire for the universe, a direction for our lives, a meaning to bestow on us, and a hope the points beyond our fears. And I understand why it has become harder in the world today to place our trust in God, to see the promise of his providential will. But I also see that the alternative to trusting in God, is to flee from one Egypt to the next, and maybe never to make it to Nazareth.
But if we follow Joseph and his little family, it may be that we could find a place to live on the same street, and learn to play with the boy next door, who has had such a harrowing and frightening childhood (even after that amazing encounter with sages from the east!), and we would learn from an early age to call Jesus our friend, which is what he calls us, as he teaches us to trust in the divine providence of his Father so that, “with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe!”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 January 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia