October 17, 2017

Homily for Christmas I: “Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes”

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-20-_-_Flight_into_Egypt

Flight into Egypt, Giotto

“Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes”
A sermon for first Sunday in Christmas 2013

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

– Matthew 2:13-23

* * *

I cannot think of a better way to summarize this series of narratives than to simply quote the words of Tom Wright, from his Matthew for Everyone commentary:

The gospel of Jesus the Messiah was born, then, in a land and at a time of trouble, tension, violence and fear. Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes. Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head. At the same time, in this passage and several others Matthew insists that we see in Jesus, even where things are at their darkest, the fulfilment of scripture. This is how Israel’s redeemer was to appear; this is how God would set about liberating his people, and bringing justice to the whole world. No point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery; no point in having an easy life, when the world suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is. That’s what this chapter is about.

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Bible can hear echoes of the Torah (the first five books of the OT) in Matthew’s account.

  • A patriarch named Joseph receives divine revelation through dreams.
  • Joseph leads his family to Egypt.
  • An evil ruler threatens Joseph’s family.
  • This evil ruler kills children in an effort to eliminate Joseph’s family.
  • A chosen child is spared from the genocide.
  • At the proper time, the child and his family return from Egypt to the Promised Land.

In the final verse of this passage, Matthew reflects on the the pitiful state of God’s people as spoken through the prophet Isaiah in Isa. 11:1, and uses a word from that verse to encourage hope. “He will be called a Nazorean” is a play on the word “nezer” (a shoot, a sprig) that describes a small, living shoot which would spring forth from “the stump of Jesse” to bring justice and peace to all the earth.

Massacre of the Innocents, Giotto

Massacre of the Innocents, Giotto

This is ever and always how Jesus comes to us. He comes to us in our pain and distress, in our sufferings and sorrows. He comes when the life we have tried to build for ourselves has come crashing down like a great tree cut down. However, out of the living root beneath that stump grows a slight sprout, weak and fragile but filled with life and promise.

He comes to us in our exile, when we are enslaved by sin and selfishness, incapable of freeing ourselves. He comes to bring the word of forgiveness and release.

He comes to us in our meekness, when we are powerless to change our circumstances or ourselves. He strengthens us with faith and hope and love. He surrounds us with people who can support us, listen to us, pray for us, and help us.

“He must be with us where the pain is,” as Tom Wright says, and then he takes our pain upon himself and we are healed.

We who live where life is relatively easy, affluent, and peaceful are prone to forget that the original Christmas was a time of oppression, conflict, frustration, and fear. Foreign soldiers guarded the streets of the Promised Land. Corrupt government officials and tax collectors strengthened the Romans’ hand and lined their own pockets at the expense of the working people. Different religious groups in Israel sought to protect the faith and in doing so often misled or laid heavy burdens on the faithful. Some of those groups even advocated violent resistance, adding to the community’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty. Israel was not free, at peace, or living in a just and equitable society.

And so it remains today in those biblical lands. On Christmas Day, dozens were killed in Christian areas of Baghdad in Iraq, and we have been hearing reports for months about the intense sufferings of Christians in Syria amid the tragic conflict there. We have brothers and sisters in Palestine, in Lebanon, and in Iran who suffer daily — from constant indignities to harassment and jail and even martyrdom.  Rachel’s children are still being targeted, and Rachel continues to weep for them.

Those folks probably understand more about Christmas than we do. Their kin was in the Holy Land in the days of Jesus and they have suffered long, while much of our memory and tradition here goes back no further than Victorian England. Yet even in our historical infancy, if we listen well the tales we tell and the songs we sing at Christmas remind us that cold, harsh winds blow while we sing of comfort and joy.

Dickens’ great Christmas Carol is not just about the redemption of a mean old man, but about a society filled with misery and want that required the transforming spirit of Christ. Christmas celebrations in the U.S. became more prominent and important during the Civil War, a time of great upheaval and suffering. Many of the soothing, sentimental Christmas songs from the twentieth century that we sing today were penned to promote solace during turbulent days of world war — days of separation, sadness, fear and mourning that covered the whole earth. My favorite film, It’s a Wonderful Life, seeks to give hope to Americans in small communities struggling to come to terms with societal change, immigration, financial inequity, the personal loss of dreams, depression, and potential suicide.

At the first Christmas, and every Christmas since, Jesus is with us, especially where the pain is. If you had a comfortable and prosperous and peaceful Christmas this year, give thanks and rejoice. But let us also remember that somewhere — actually in many somewheres around the world — Jesus’ followers are living and dying in the midst of fear and danger and many kinds of suffering.

The peace and joy of Christmas is hard won.

Cradles and crosses go together.

And in the end, God brings his own out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

Comments

  1. “Cradles and crosses go together.
    And in the end, God brings his own out of Egypt to the Promised Land.”

    In the end.

    Even so, come Lord Jesus.

  2. “Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes.”

    Except that the peace Christ gives is not as the world’s peace, and its scenes are played out deep within the obscurity of human hearts.

    The peace that passes understanding.

  3. It gives the lie to that popular Christmas song “Do you hear what I hear?”. The last verse should go

    Said the king to the people everywhere,
    Kill all the children,
    The Child is a threat to my reign,
    Kill all two and under

    Rachel weeps for her children
    And will not be comforted,
    for they are no more…

  4. “Rachel’s children are still being targeted, and Rachel continues to weep for them.”

    I see that in Uganda and Nigeria, harsh anti-homosexuality legislation has passed, with strong support given by Christian churches and groups inside and outside of those nations, including the Anglican Church of Uganda, the local province of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to which the Episcopal Church USA, of which I’m a member, belongs.

    “And anyone hanged in his cell is Jesus Christ on his cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” Petru Dumitriu

    “Rachel’s children are still being targeted, and Rachel continues to weep for them.”

  5. Whatever else God is…He is surely not sentimental.

    It certainly seems that He lets it all happen.

    • What exactly does your statement mean? It sounds as if you are saying that God is cold-hearted, and that we should be as well.

      • Oh brother. How in the world did you come up with that?

        It means this; that in this world we will have trouble. But we will win…in the end…because of Jesus.

        • ” How in the world did you come up with that?”

          Perhaps I’m just obtuse.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > Perhaps I’m just obtuse.

            It happens to all of us. It is a fascinating thing about the Internet – how a statement can go a completely different way in someone else’s mind than it went in your own.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > But we will win…in the end…because of Jesus.

          I am uncomfortable with the “we will win” sentiment [for lack of another term, bad writing I know, as that term is already deployed in this thread].

          We do not win – we are saved, from what we are. `Winning` is too triumphalist for my tastes, and it implies we defeated something – I know too much of my own nature or the story of human kind to ever believe that; for we are The Walking Stupid [if an idea did not work the first 50 times, we will try it once more, but with more fire-power. Argh, the morning news makes me sad again].

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Whatever else God is…He is surely not sentimental.

      Are you sure? Sometimes He sounds very `sentimental`, almost Romantic.

      “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” … that is sentiment.

      “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, says the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid”… rather sentimental.

      This third I will put into the fire;
      I will refine them like silver
      and test them like gold.
      They will call on my name
      and I will answer them;
      I will say, ‘They are my people,’
      and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’ … this is almost a love song [albeit a violent and disturbing love song, but I am not a god].

      How can I give you up, Ephraim?
      How can I hand you over, Israel?
      How can I treat you like Admah?
      How can I make you like Zeboyim?
      My heart is changed within me;
      all my compassion is aroused.
      I will not carry out my fierce anger,
      nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
      For I am God, and not a man—
      the Holy One among you.
      I will not come against their cities. – sentiment – “My heart is changed within me”.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Regarding the Flight to Egypt, I remember hearing on the radio (late-night weirdness talk show) that Joseph et al probably bugged out to the City of Alexandria. Biggest city in the area, other side of Egypt from Judea, HUGE Jewish community to get lost in; if you were a Jew who needed to go to ground BAD, Alexandria was the place to hide. And since Joseph was a tradesman, he had a good chance of finding work there — “networking” through the synagogues, if nothing else.

  7. Splendid homily, Mike.

  8. davidbrainerd2 says:

    IF you read carefully the whole Herod thing was like 2 years later. So you don’t get to banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes. Sorry. Peace on earth, goodwill to men…dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah