In 1982 with the Cold War still in full swing, Walt Disney released the film Night Crossing, starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges. The film tells the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, who in 1979 fled repressive, Communist East Germany. What is most remarkable is the manner of their flight. The families created a massive, homemade hot air balloon, sewn under the cover of night on a sewing machine hidden in an attic. They transported the balloon to a field on the outskirts of town and soared above the earth, dodging secret police on the ground and helicopters in the air. And they did it twice. The first time the balloon crashed a few hundred yards on the eastern side of the border. The families snuck back to town, evaded the Stasi for weeks, made a second balloon, and finally made their flight a second, successful time.
Night Crossing came to mind for me this past week, both as I studied the Gospel text for today of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and as I considered the auspicious change of the calendar. I remember the fear and tension evoked throughout the film. The characters were fidgety with anxiety as they moved toward the date of their escape. The families wanted desperately to get out.
Today is the first Sunday of the new decade. We’ve said goodbye not only to 2019 but to the 2010s, and for many the farewell has the feel of a flight response. Like the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, we may want to hop into a balloon and soar far and away from the decade just ended. Consider a few reasons why:
In the past ten years, the cost of private health insurance rose by more than 50%[i] while during the same decade median household income in the United States increased in real dollars by less than 3%.[ii] We will soon reach a day when the cost of health insurance is no longer viable, for either individuals or employers.
In the past ten years, mass shootings in the United States, defined as shootings in which four or more people are killed in a public place, and not related to robberies or domestic violence, have proliferated. Twenty years ago, mass shootings occurred, on average, once every six months. Ten years ago, mass shootings occurred once every two-and-a-half months. Today, a mass shooting occurs every forty-seven days. Two thousand Americans have been killed in mass shootings since Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas fifty years ago, but half of those victims have been killed in the past decade, and a third, in fact, in the past five years.[iii][iv]
In the past ten years, the number of displaced people and refugees on the planet has reached a record high. There are now 25.9 million refugees across the globe.[v] That’s almost equal to the entire population of Texas. Think about that. And more than half of those refugees are children under age eighteen. These are people like the Holy Family in today’s Gospel, willing to travel in the dark of night, to take risks as daunting and dangerous as making a homemade hot air balloon or crossing the Rio Grande with an infant on one’s back, in the effort to preserve those they love.
In the past ten years, we could add to these tribulations environmental degradation, the dearth of economic opportunity in our nation’s heartland, the loss of faith in religious institutions, the breakdown in the common goodwill, and the disdainful rhetoric of our political leaders, all as contributors to our desire to soar up and away, our flight response from the decade just ended.
I saw the movie Night Crossing in the theatre, and I’ve never forgotten the final scene. When the hot air balloon lands in a field, the fathers of the two families creep toward the road, until a policeman shines his flashlight on them. One of the men asks, “Are we in the West?” The officer responds, “You are,” and the fathers’ joy erupts as they call forth their families from the shadows.
Note that the question asked is not, “Have we escaped the East?” but “Have we found the West?” You see, though the film certainly includes much anxiety and fear to escape from, it is even more deeply characterized by the hope of flight to. More than the families fleeing the past, they are pursing a hopeful future, even when doing so requires much risk and danger. And that casts a different light.
In the Gospel text today, the same dual perspective pertains. On the face of it, the Holy Family is fleeing clear and present danger. They must get out, and that quickly, in front of Herod’s death squads. But our horizon on this event is as broad as the whole Gospel. We know the rest of the story, and the story is that from the flight of a dark and desperate yesterday Jesus moves into a tomorrow that brings light, hope, and love first to dusty Palestine and then to the whole world. The Holy Family escapes from Herod so that they can move into God’s grace.
Throughout today’s Gospel, Matthew narrates again and again that the angel counsels and Joseph carries the Christ child from danger and into hope. Five times the text says this, the child being the bearer of the priceless promise. Not only is he the one taken into a hopeful future; he is also the very one who makes that future possible.
And so, as we move from one decade to another, must we really cast the turn of the calendar as a flight response? Must we think primarily of the past decade as something from which we need to escape? First we should ask, did we take Christ with us as the angel counsels, as we moved through those years? Was he present in our world?
Surely, he was. You see, this also characterized the 2010s: In the decade just ended, the number of people across the globe living in extreme poverty was cut in half, from 1.2 billion to 600 million. For the first time in human history, less than 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty.[vi] With regard to violence, the misleading bombardment of the twenty-four-hour news cycle notwithstanding, we are now living in the least violent era of human history. In the decade just ended, a smaller percentage of the world’s people died by violence than ever before.[vii] The Christ child has been active locally as well. In Houston during the decade just ended, the number of people who are chronically homeless and living on the street was cut in half. At The Beacon, in the decade just ended, 70,000 different individuals walked through the doors and were fed 663,000 meals. Adding spiritual nourishment to the physical, in the decade just ended, we at Christ Church baptized 448 people and confirmed or received 309 more. Add to these few examples the countless other ways and places that Christ has been active, and the world begins to shine.
In other words, as we pull high and away from the decade past, we can see it as a time from which to anxiously escape, or we can recognize the light of Christ that we have carried through these years, that we continue to hold this day, and that we take with us into the future. Any era—any day, or week, or year—can be either nightmare or dawn. It all depends upon whether we understand ourselves to be escaping from darkness or flying toward hope. The world will always include Herods, those who would turn on their neighbors, little men with lots of power who choose to be casually cruel, the apathetic. But the movement of Christ into that world adds light that scatters darkness, crowds out anxiety with hope, and can redeem all things, including, if we’re brave and doggedly faithful, those tribulations I talked about at the outset.
So long as we carry Christ with us. Only when we carry Christ with us. We have to be as audacious as the kind of people who, in the shadow of danger, would patch together a hot air balloon in their attic and fly over barbed wire into hope. We have not escaped the 2010s; we are soaring into the 2020s, and through us the love and grace of God will render this a better world. Happy new year.