A few years ago the U.S. Postal Service did something different with its religiously themed Christmas stamps. I’m not sure whether the change came about as a nod to non-Catholic Christians who were averse to using the images of the Madonna and Child offered each year, or simply because someone at the USPS felt bored and needed a change, but I loved the new stamp.
It featured a silhouette of the Holy Family against a bright orange sky and a dazzling star. Joseph is leading a donkey carrying Mary and what looks to be a sleeping bundle of newborn King in her arms.
I bought scores of the stamps so as to use them even after Christmas, and then was delighted to find them offered the next year and several years thereafter. The stamp speaks to me in a different, more immediate way than the lovely Madonna/Child stamps, and I’ve wondered why. I think it may have to do with how much more “contemporary” the image feels. Even as it shows a traditional image, the stamp speaks to a relevance to our times and our headlines. Christ is born, and the family is making a hazardous trek through the desert and into Egypt, because it is not safe for them in Bethlehem, or Nazareth, or anywhere Herod reigns, and so they are migrating — they are refugees from terror.
The Holy Spirit often uses the most confounding means and methods to get our attention and open us to God’s instructive promptings, so perhaps we shouldn’t marvel that a few years before immigrants and refugees became the stuff of our daily headlines (and a source of considerable consternation for people inside and outside of the Church) the U.S. Postal Service was pulling our thoughts in that direction.
Yes, it speaks to our times. We see a family uprooted from everything they know, everything “normal,” comfortable and familiar. Not only are they unable to simply “go back” to the way things were, they are being led into something wholly different, with nothing to go on but trust: a man, a woman and a baby, moving against a whole world of uncertainty, injustice and danger.
There is much consolation in this lovely picture. In the crucifix we encounter “The God Who Knows” — the one who understands our feelings of fear, abandonment, betrayal, shame, thirst. Here we see “The God Who Knows” familial anxiety, too, and social separation, material deprivation and — perhaps again — thirst. His stepfather, obedient to something as ephemeral as a dream, places everything into the hands of Divine Providence and leads them through new terrain, seeking wells and watering holes as they travel for Mary to drink that the infant might be nourished. This is the God who has been part of a family unit that worked like a closed circuit of surety and continuance, and the God who also knew all of its stresses.
There is nothing going on in the world, or in our personal spheres, for which Scripture and the life of the Christ do not offer an instructive correlation, if only we bother to seek it out. This image is an invitation to the whole world to trust God, even amid blaring headlines, because He is always faithful. It says “Ephphatha, be open!” It says, “I know the plans I have for you.” It says, “Fear not, for I am with you.” It says, “Do not worry about tomorrow.”
At the absolute baseline of the life of faith, God asks us a question: Do you trust me? We are creatures who, since Eden, have willfully embraced the illusion that we are in control of everything, when, in fact, the only thing within our control is our decision to trust or to doubt, to be open or to be closed, to believe or not to believe.
The Flight into Egypt stamp is a powerful reminder of that truth, and it bears the word “Forever.” We are forever meant to surrender our illusion of control, forever meant to be opened, forever meant to trust in Divine Providence. Call it a coincidence if you like. I see the Holy Spirit giving necessary instruction to our time.