28 December 2007

Why Does Jesus Flee from Herod?

St Peter Chrysologus has a knack for tackling, with wonderful rhetorical flare, the tough textual questions in his homilies. The latest example I've found are from his series of sermons on the flight of Jesus into Egypt, and Herod's murder of the holy innocent boys. (Mt 2.13-18)

In sermon 151 (Fathers of the Church, 110.257-260), St Peter Chrysologus begins by declaring that the Gospel reading "has troubled our hearts, shaken us in the depths of our being, and has made us wonder if we were hearing correctly." Why? Because we heard that God fled when St Matthew records that the angel told Joseph, "Flee to Egypt!" "It would have been more reverent," says the sainted homilist, "to say: 'Make your way to Egypt,' so as to indicate a journey, not a flight..." However, flight is precisely what the text says, and what St Peter Chrysologus wants us to hear and consider. He urges us to ponder God running away from danger, God fleeing from the devil. And he wants us to consider how this matches with God's promise that He is our refuge and strength. "If the refuge flees, if the strength is afraid, if the protection goes away, what life, hope, security, or defense is there?"

St Peter designs his sermons to shake us. And having done so, how does he answer his own question? With the sweetest Gospel. St Peter Chrysologus boldly asserts the following: "Brothers, that Christ fled had to do with a mystery, not fear; it was the liberation of the creature, not a peril to the Creator; it was a matter of divine power, not human fraility; of concern was not the death of the Creator, but the life of the world." So what does Christ flee? For us men and for our salvation.

Yet how does Christ's flight prefigure our salvation, or preach comfort to us? In three ways. First, Christ flees so that willingly, deliberately, and on his own terms He may take up our fight against the Devil. So Christ flees so that He might fully and willingly suffer our sufferings, endure our death, and enter our grave. "Christ assumed us in himself in order to give himself to us; he endured our sufferings in order to remove our sufferings." So Christ's flees so that the Devil does not prematurely ruin His saving work.

Second, St Chrysologus states that Christ flees in order to have mercy on his persecutors--and, at the same time, to teach us how to have mercy. "When a martyr has been taken into custody he must hold steadfast, but when he has not been taken into custody he must flee the persecutor, in order to grant the persecutor an opportunity to come to his senses..." Oh, that many strong-willed Christians would learn this lesson! By defiantly throwing ourselves into the hands of those who seek to ridicule us, we are hastening their judgment and refusing them time for repentance and, in a sense, participating in their sin. Furthermore, we are giving the devil what he wants rather than loving others by helping them attain the kingdom of heaven. What we must rather consider is what Our Lord says ("If you are persecuted in one town, flee to another"; Mt 10.23) and the story of St Paul ("Brothers, if the martyrs had not fled from Saul, they would not have made Paul a martyr.") or the Innocent Martyrs ("If Christ had stood fast, the synagogues would have them as sons, and the Church would not have them as martyrs.")

As the excellent orator that he is, St Peter Chrysologus saves the best and "most gospelly" reason for last. "Christ fled...[so] that he who had made the human being fully equipped for life might refashion him for the fullness of life; and so that he might likewise hand over to heaven the one whom he had put on earth." In other words, Christ's flight is not ultimately about His fight against the devil, but about taking us--and all men--to Himself and with Himself.

Such sweeter Gospel can scarcely be preached!

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