The bedroom in which I slept as a boy was simply decorated. I can remember two statues, one of St Thomas More and one of St John Fisher. And there was a picture of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. I can remember the details of the picture very well. I think it was a print of the well-known painting by Fra Angelico.
I can’t say that I paid much attention to these signs of devotion. But they were there and they had their subtle, formative influence. They were the backcloth, the context of our daily lives, rather better, I suggest, than pop stars or footballers. Certainly the Flight into Egypt, with Joseph leading the donkey and the pyramids in the background, spoke to me of the constant presence of Our Lord in our lives and of the hardships he faced. Our own difficulties were slight in comparison.
The picture also spoke of enduring love and faithfulness: this family was staying together, no matter what. And they were doing God’s will, obeying that voice of God which came to Joseph deep in his soul. These things have certainly stayed with me.
The image came back to me forcefully late in November as I celebrated Sunday Mass with the tiny Catholic community in Gaza City. For there, on the wall of the apse, behind the altar, is a painting of the Flight into Egypt. As I looked at it, all those boyhood memories came flooding back, and with them a deeper appreciation of the great gift of faith.
The people of Gaza have nowhere to flee. They are locked in. They are confined to their small territory by walls and barbed wire, by high-security crossings and the threat of military action. Fleeing to Egypt is not an option for them.
They have to stay and fashion the best life they can in their terrible circumstances, with large sections of their city recently destroyed and a constant threat of violence from within and without.
The Catholic community there certainly plays its part. It runs schools and childrens’ homes. It offers security and refuge to its neighbours.
It nurtures hope and compassion where these virtues are difficult to sustain. It supports the family, the elderly, children. This parish gives courageous witness to the fruits of faith lived in the most difficult of circumstances.
As I looked at the picture in the church, it struck me forcefully that the journey of the Holy Family to Egypt would have been through this very territory. Joseph and Mary must have taken the coast road, avoiding the Negev desert, on their way south. They carried Jesus, the Saviour of the World, through this same place. He has been here, in present-day Gaza, surely leaving on his path the hidden gift of grace for all who want to find it.
Jesus in Gaza: that is what I saw and met on the feast of Christ the King, not so much in the painting as in the people, in their family struggles, in the religious Sisters among them, exuding joy and compassion, in their parish priest, solid and faithful. In them, I saw the faithfulness of the Holy Family. I saw their daily struggle to stay together, to nurture and support each other in their war-weariness.
I sensed in many, particularly the religious and priests, their willingness to listen to the voice of God and respond readily to the costly call to stay in Gaza, to be with this precious part of the People of God.
Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt: these were the places of Jesus’s infancy, times and settings which we recall and enter again with joy at Christmas. Each of them unfolds the meaning of that lovely title Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Yes, he is with us, everywhere and at all times. We don’t have to travel to meet him. He does the journeying, from heaven to the womb of Mary, from Nazareth across the Judaean mountains, from Bethlehem down to another world, another kingdom, in Egypt. All of this tells us that he will not leave us. He will not refuse our invitation once it is truly offered. No life, no soul, is too distant for him to come to and enter and make his own. No matter where we might be in our lives, no matter how shut in we might feel, no matter how surrounded by threat or occupied by doubt, failure and fear we might see ourselves to be, he will come. And in his coming, he will free and save us.
The telling of this story, the announcing of this truth, is the true wonder of Christmas. This is our joy and privilege: we know what Christmas is truly about. We know its secret, somewhat hidden today, yet as appealing and crucial as ever. God is with us, in all graciousness and mercy, in astonishing humility and readiness, all for our sake, so that the children may lead us to him in awe and wonder.
So please enjoy every Christmas light and tree that you see. Share in the festivities. But let there be in your eyes an additional twinkle, the light of a deeper knowledge. And do all you can to show to others the light beyond the lights, the gift beyond the presents, the joy that is hidden deep within our social festivities and which will outlast them all. Please do all you can to proclaim Christ this Christmas, enthroning him in your hearts and in your home decorations, in your family banter and in your family prayers.And as you do so, please remember the people of Gaza. The Christians there will celebrate the coming of Christ. In this, we are one with them. Hold them fast in your prayers and in your hearts.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (19/12/14)