This Christmas Season has been a bit of a whirlwind, the way things have fallen: last Sunday we were still in Advent and then we marked, in rapid succession, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Feast of Stephen on Wednesday night. Next Sunday we’ll celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany—the arrival of those wise guys from the east. And Matthew will tell us (as James Taylor also sings about) that they went “home by another way.”
While we’d usually rather not think about why exactly that was, we just heard the reason why they have to do that: because Herod is a cruel dictator, hardly the first or the last in the Middle East (or in the world)—as we all know. And he’ll do anything to hold on to his power. Whatever it takes.
The Gospel reading (Matthew 2:13-18) that we just heard was actually appointed for December 28—this past Friday—a day known in the Church as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Usually we don’t hear these words read aloud in church during the Twelve Days of Christmas since there are plenty of other possibilities to choose from for the First Sunday after Christmas. And usually that suits me just fine—it’s quite frankly a rather difficult and disturbing reading that it’s usually easier to just avoid in that week between Christmas and New Year’s. Normally I like to choose the option of hearing John’s Prologue today, which gives us a chance to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation. We’ll get there as well, but (like those magi) we’ll get there by another way, because it just didn’t seem right to let it pass by without some mention of the Holy Innocents.
Now let me just say, before I go any further, that I am not going to talk any more about the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut today. It’s not that it’s over, because it is definitely not; grief takes a very long time. It is not that our prayers for the people who live there should cease as the news crews move on to whatever tragedy strikes next. We spent some time with my family in Pennsylvania this past week and to get there we travel on Route 84, right through Connecticut and right past exit 10 for Newtown and Sandy Hook. Over the highway there is a sheet hanging with the words, “pray for Newtown.” Indeed we must and we will. Our attention span in the Church has to be longer than that of our twenty-four hour news cycle. But for now, at least, I feel that I’ve said all that I need to say about that pastorally and theologically; all that, quite frankly, I can bear to say. It’s been pretty intense.
What I do want to do, however, is to hold up this gospel reading about Herod’s rage as a lens for us to explore the familiar Christmas story at a deeper level, in light of what we have experienced this Advent as God’s people. It seems we are in a rather “thin” place where we can hear this gospel text with ears that truly hear. And yes, I do think there is “good news” here, but we will have to dig deep to find it.
Most historians agree that this probably didn’t happen. The far more likely scenario is that nobody really noticed when Jesus was born, at least nobody important: perhaps a few unnamed shepherds and maybe some rather odd visitors from the east. The birth narratives that Luke and Matthew give us came much later; they were constructed decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus to “fill in the blanks.” In fact, the earliest of the four gospels (Mark) doesn’t even have a birth narrative. The point is this: at the actual time of Jesus’ birth, the government probably wasn’t too worried about the government being on the shoulders of a nobody from a small town on the outskirts of the empire. No one expected the “king of kings” to be found in a manger. It was only much later—after he was all grown up—that he started making the powers-that-be nervous.
So if it didn’t happen, this rage of King Herod, then we might assume it isn’t true. But we would be wrong. Because here is the thing: stories can be true even if they didn’t happen. A story can be true and not historical. In fact that is what great literature does over and over again: we go to see a play or we listen to a song or we read a poem because it conveys a deep truth and invites us to ponder our own reality in deeper ways. In the Interfaith Bible study I lead with Christians and Jews over at St. Clare House, perhaps the most important thing that Jews have to offer us Christians is about how midrash works. Sometimes to get at the truth you need to tell a story, and then sometimes even another story about the story. Something does not need to have happened for it to convey truth and meaning. Jonah does not have to have literally lived in the belly of a whale, for example, for that story to convey a deep theological truth about inclusion and the breadth and depth of God’s love for all people, even Ninivites. Jews just seem more practiced at embracing this reality, in my experience, than many Christians are; but we are getting better.
So in this case, Matthew’s Gospel (the most Jewish of the four gospels, by the way) wants us to know that Jesus is a kind of “second Moses.” And every Jew knows the central story of the faith is the Passover story—the journey from slavery to freedom as told in the Book of Exodus. Part of that story is about how old Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. Part of that story is about how the male babies in Egypt were killed, but Moses was saved when he was placed in a little ark (that’s the precise Hebrew word, the same word used in the flood narrative.) Moses is put in a little ark (a basket) and placed safely where Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe…and well, you know the rest of the story.
So in this midrash we heard today, Herod is playing the par t of Pharaoh and Jesus is playing the part of a new Moses, sent to free God’s people. Joseph, the father of Jesus is warned in a dream to take the family to Egypt—reminiscent of the Joseph in the Book of Genesis who was also a dreamer and whose many dreams led the Hebrew people into Egypt in the first place.
Now maybe it all happened that way; I’m not insisting that it didn’t. I am only saying that it’s not necessary to spend a lot of time arguing about whether or not it happened historically. Our work here, and now, is to ask what it means. And I think the reason Matthew goes there is because it is true that the birth of Jesus does in fact threaten the powerful and does confront evil head on. Always. And when the powerful are threatened, almost always it is the innocent—especially the young and the vulnerable—who suffer. This we know; this we see; because it plays out again and again.
Matthew is right to include this part of the story because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the Incarnation. It reminds us that the world that Jesus comes into to save is not ready for salvation or for the costs of discipleship or for the justice that is required if there is to be peace on earth. Hear these words from theologian, Rita Nakashima Brock, commenting on this story of the Holy Innocents:
If children are the heart of the meaning of Christmas, the message of the full story of Christmas is what adults must do to keep children alive and help them thrive. If we had the moral courage of mothers, we would not only stop gun violence, but also guarantee universal health care, assure parents living wages for all work, provide excellent schools for every child, and care for families struggling with mental illness. Without the message of Christmas for the world, its meaning for children is thin and hollow.
And that, I believe, is the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown. Not only that Jesus is born in our hearts, but that he is born again in our minds and in our bodies again and again: until we begin to say yes to the never-ending Christmas story and enter into it. Until we really do get what John of Patmos got in his Revelation: that we are part of a people who follow the One who will ultimately wipe away every tear from every eye. And in the meantime, we are called to be a people who sit with those who weep and help wipe away those tears.
The Christmas story is not a fairy tale, but a truth that changes us and demands action on our part. I told you we’d get to the Incarnation: the point is here and in John’s Gospel as well, that God became human, so that humans might remember that we are created in God’s very own image and start to live that way. As we embark upon a new year of grace, we are reminded that the God we get at Christmas is not an interventionist God who waves a wand and makes the world a better place to live. The God we get is Immanuel: standing with us through it all, so that we never walk alone. God-with-us as we seek to be repairers of the breach; and instruments of God’s peace in a broken world. Step one is in acknowledging that the world is indeed broken, and needs us to be the Body of Christ.
Like the holy family, we need to find our way into the Christmas story. Like the shepherds, the wisemen, the people of Bethlehem, the people of Newtown: it is a story that is ever new. So that even in these early days of the Christmas Season—even before the magi have made it to the manger—we can already hear the whisper of what is to come: “take up your cross and follow me.”
I leave you with these words to ponder—words I return to every Christmas season from the late Howard Thurman, who was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. There he played a role in shaping the spirituality of a young doctoral student named Martin Luther King, Jr. These words continue to challenge God’s people to enter into the pain and brokenness of this world—wherever there are holy innocents—as instruments of God’s peace.
Let us pray:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.