Reading Matthew 2: 13–23
Four minutes to fall in love
This is one of the uglier Christmas stories. When the wise men visit local ruler Herod, they say they are looking for 'the King of the Jews', and Herod realises that they don’t mean him. He judges - rightly - that Jesus, the child they seek, is a threat to his kingdom, to his way of doing power. And so, says Matthew the gospel writer, Herod begins some targeted slaughter to neutralise this potential source of rebellion - too late, because Jesus and his family have already escaped and become refugees.
Herod’s way of doing power is of course still alive and kicking. Matthew would find present-day Syria, where innocents are again being killed as a means of neutralising ‘rebels’, quite familiar. He does not describe the experience of being a refugee, though it is unlikely that things were so different then: the indifference of some of the native population in the land you come to, their understandable caution, and their fear of the threat you might pose, especially if there are a lot of you - a ‘swarm’ perhaps; the tendency to talk about you as part of a lump, a collectivity, as part of an issue, not as a person with a story.
Throughout its fifty-five years, Amnesty - to the vexation of the Herods of this world - has tirelessly brought into the light the stories of people whose rights are abused, people like Johan Teterissa, a teacher in Indonesia and the prisoner of conscience whom we are supporting with our prayers in the Cathedral during this month. Groups like Salisbury Amnesty patiently and persistently bring to the minds of rulers and their representatives the stories of people they would rather forget. And now, as our continent faces the severest displacement of people since the Second World War, refugees are at the top of Amnesty’s concerns.
On the Amnesty website you will find a short film called A Powerful Experiment. It is inspired by the theory of psychologist Arthur Aron, who says that four minutes of eye contact is enough to bring two people close together, even to fall in love. And so, in a bare factory space, a group of native Europeans - women, men, one young girl - each sit with a refugee for four minutes. In that space and time the ‘issue’ acquires a human face: Samira from Syria and Danuta from Poland, Mariam from Syria and Lee from the UK, Grażyna from Poland and Fatima from Somalia, open their eyes and at first just look at each other. Soon, there are smiles - warm smiles, one rather shy - some tears, and then words:
‘Nice moustache...I’m sixty-five.’
‘Are you new in Berlin?’ ‘Eight months.’ ‘And are you alone here? Or with your family?’ A pause. ‘Alone.’
And finally, touch - a handshake, a hug, a game of tag, and that word ‘refugee’ is made flesh.
In just four weeks’ time we shall proclaim again the good news of the word of God made flesh in the birth of Jesus.
The Christmas stories will remind us how glorious is the potential of that human flesh that in Jesus could contain all the fullness of God, and how infinitely treasured is each human life, made in the image of God.
And tonight we give thanks to God for Amnesty, for the patient, persistent work of its staff and volunteers in reminding the powerful of this treasure and how blasphemous it is to deny it; and reminding us all that the refugee glimpsed on a screen or news page is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; that each one, like each of us, has their story to tell, a life to live, and a hope of glory.