By Victoria Heard
Robert Browning wrote “Pippa’s Song,” an ecstatic poem on an English spring morning that ends: “God’s in his heaven—/All’s right with the world!” He was writing from Italy. My heart yearns, reading his words, but my mind says, “Not then, not now!” The celebration of the birth of Christ is ecstatic: God has remembered us, in the depths of winter; we can see in the Christ child the coming salvation. Spring is coming and the renewal of all things.
Yet here we are, or were. For all the joy of the birth of Jesus, I doubt Joseph or Mary felt safe in the weeks after Jesus’ birth. Joseph may well have glad for a firstborn son and for Mary’s safe delivery, which in a time of better obstetrics may be less obvious. Still, the world outside the stable was dangerous.
The politics of Judea were always unsettled. King Herod (the “Great”) was notorious for his brutality in a cruel and brutal world. Joseph had none of the few protections of the age: Roman citizenship, serious money, or public position. Like a modern citizen of Iraq or Syria, he must have lived with daily worry, abnormally aware of the way a patrol passed through the town. He must have listened to what was shared in the marketplace, what he heard at the synagogue, what was alluded to at the well. He must have smelled any change in the political winds, until a warning of evil came to his dreams. Then, he acted with the prudence the Church has always attributed to him. He went to Egypt.
Until I went to Masada, Herod’s pleasure palace and fortress in the Judean desert, I had always wondered that Joseph fled as far as Egypt. Egypt is a long way from Judea. Why did he not go back to Nazareth? After I had seen Masada, I wondered whether Joseph had gone far enough. Even after the destruction by the Romans and 2,000 years of decay, the ruins of Herod’s weekend retreat on top of a mountain are vastly impressive. A tyrant who could achieve the building of Masada is one whose arm was surely long with secret police and foreign agents — indeed the story of the casual killing of small children to kill the Messiah is Herod 2.0.
This week I have been visiting northern Virginia. Everywhere, the conversation is about the government shutdown, and the conflict between the President and Congress. Someone works for the government and is not working and worrying about when he will return. If not, he is worried about friends or the effects of the shutdown on the local economy.
In a safe country, with the rule of law, a citizen can ignore politics. In a country without predictability, a citizen has to watch and worry. I am struck by how many people near Washington have been moved to watch and worry.
Christians live as people with two passports: the country in which we live and the country of Heaven in which we both live and yet to which we are in transit. We are required to be good citizens of where we are and where we are going. Our kingdom passport is always good, and we should carry it with confidence. But we must also seek, as dual citizens, to work and pray for a world in which citizens are safe and strangers and refugees, as Joseph and Mary were in Egypt, also have hope and such rights as attach to all who are human. Since the Word become human, we who carry two passports must be careful neither to panic nor to be complacent.