First Sunday of Christmas
A lot of people were really happy to say goodbye to the year 2016 last night. After all, it’s been a year riddled with violence in places such as Berlin, Orlando, St. Paul, Aleppo, Chicago, and Nice, to name a few. And every month it seemed, we heard of more deaths of iconic celebrities like Prince and David Bowie. 2016 was loaded with grueling political campaigns—our presidential one here in the US and the Brexit vote in in Europe, just for starters. So bye-bye 2016, and don’t let the door hit you on your way out.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to feel a little bit cheated by the lectionary texts for today. It was just a week ago that we were singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” about the little Baby Jesus, asleep on the hay, and now, when the angel shows up again, it is to tell the little family to run for their lives. It seems like we should have had a little more time with the sweetness of Christmas, doesn’t it? Don’t we deserve a little more merry, merry time before re-encountering our bleak reality?
At the same time, our context makes this text a little more accessible to us than Luke’s story about the manger and shepherds. We don’t see a lot of those things in our lives, but political leaders who act violently and mothers who mourn—those are things we know. And knowing them makes this Gospel lesson from Matthew chillingly timely. It reminds us that the horrors we are experiencing are not new. They weren’t even new in Jesus’ day—Matthew goes out of his way to draw connections between his story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to a story his mostly Jewish audience would have known about: Pharaoh’s executing Jewish children in Exodus 2. He wants us to think about Moses being spared and growing up to save his people when we hear about Baby Jesus being spared so he can grow up to be our Messiah.
Still, as theologian Warren Carter describes it, this second chapter of Matthew is “The Empire Strikes Back.” It is a story about a powerful, dark central force combating the apparently-powerless margins. “King Herod” becomes just “Herod” once the true “King of the Jews” arrives, and he understood the threat this Child posed to his reign. Herod sent his soldiers to get the Baby Jesus and also to squelch any messianic hopes in the people who had heard about the child’s birth from angels or shepherds or anyone else. Herod was all about killing hope.
It’s hard to hear this story without picturing the horrifying videos and photos coming out of the besieged and sorrowing city of Aleppo these days. A father holding his two small children in his arms: it takes us a moment to understand, as they fall back limply, that the children are both dead. They look perfect, peaceful even, but they have been killed by the powers that be, senselessly, in cold blood. When we see something like that, how can we not remember this story, and hear the voice of Mother Rachel, crying for her children because they are no more, as Matthew evokes her voice in mourning over these latest of her lost children?
This passage is essential for us Christians today, because it reminds us that the most vulnerable among us must be protected even when we try to protect ourselves and our nation. We wage war with apparently clean hands and a clear conscience against the toddlers and the infants of the world in a variety of ways: cutting food stamps and Head Start programs, maintaining a minimum wage that is unsustainable for families, failing to provide adequate parenting education and job training for parents. Less obvious, and more socially acceptable, is the war against childhood by promoting adult behaviors among children through the media and advertising, and also the neglect of children by parents who place their jobs and personal satisfactions about the well-being of their children. All of this is still the landscape around us as we enter 2017. We have not escaped evil by the stroke of midnight last night.
Matthew reminds us that death and injustice have always been part of the human landscape. Disciples in his time and in our time have always had to determine where we stand when we encounter violence, injustice, and suffering. If we have come to passively tolerate evil, we are not so very different from the soldiers in this story—or the soldiers in in any age who say about the atrocities of war that they are “only following orders.”
Theologian Paulo Freire once wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” So we have to take a stand, and that stand, if we are following Jesus, will be with the marginalized and fragile. And that will probably be difficult. And we won’t always have the courage or wherewithal to try. Sometimes we will fail. In 2017, babies will die, mothers will weep, and blood will run in the streets. That is just the truth.
But this is also true: whatever else 2017 brings us, it will bring us Jesus. Jesus is now and has always been God-with-us. The God we meet in Jesus is not exempt from the tension, fear, violence, and horror of our fallen world. God’s full-on embrace of the most difficult parts of our human story reminds us that this world is not just fallen but also beloved. Jesus comes to us in the candlelight while we sing “Silent Night,” but God also comes to us when we are nowhere near church and want nothing to do with God. Jesus comes to us hospital emergency rooms and refugee camps as well as to our moments of self-giving grace.
The best part is that not only is Jesus here with us, but also for us! Jesus will not be deterred from bringing life out of death, no matter how fiercely the powers fight against God. Matthew structures this passage around prophecies, demonstrating that even the darkest portions of Jesus’ story turn within a larger narrative of God’s overarching providence and protection. I would never say that all these events are part of some larger “plan.” I’m not at all sure that’s true. What I can say is that nothing that happens to Jesus – or, by extension, to any of us – is beyond the bounds of God’s love and activity. Everything, even the cross, can be redeemed and even used by God.
God is with us, even in the darkest times, not only accompanying us, but also bringing us to the other side so that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ. Not a bad message to hear on this first day of the New Year. 2017 will bring both sunshine and rain, and Jesus will be beside us, loving us and guiding us through all of it. Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider