Christmas. It has a special place in so many people’s lives, doesn’t it?
Family. Presents. I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Parties. Trees. Bows. Linus reciting the Christmas story. Rudolf. 8 pound 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus.
Marketers play up the nostalgia angle. You see more tear-jerker commercials around the holidays than any other time. Everything’s sepia-toned and warm in the national imagination. Old fashioned Christmases, full of families without drunk uncles yelling about about politics and how good we used to have it before the other side drove us into a ditch, gathered around a calm and edifying Christmas table, sharing in a meal of peace, goodwill toward all humanity, all sweetened by sweet potato casserole.
You’ve been around long enough to know how much our culture has riding on a sentimental Christmas season. And while our preoccupation with “getting it just right” is often just a way of distracting ourselves from the soul-crushing poverty and suffering in the world, that can also be one of it’s most positive contributions. Sometimes we need a break from all the horror and hatred of war, racism, catastrophes, disease, xenophobia, terrorism, and homophobia. And Christmas offers the promise of, if not taking our minds off the bad, then at least helping to remind us of the good.
So, our culture tends to like the kinds of Christmases that lift our spirits and reassure us that we’re basically good people, who have proper intentions toward others—mall parking lot brawls and drunk uncles notwithstanding.
Right about now you might be scratching your head, wondering, “Why is the preacher talking about Christmas? That was last week. Today’s New Years Day, for crying out loud!”
Oh, I know. It’s important to point out once again that Christmas is a season, not just a day. Remember the 12 days of Christmas? Yeah, we’re right smack dab in the middle of them. We’re at “8 maids a-milking” for those of you keeping track.
So, Matthew’s Gospel today is a Christmas text. Pretty nifty how the Church worked that out, isn’t it? Today’s the day in the lectionary where we remember the “slaughter of the innocents”—you know, all those baby boys under two years-old that Herod had killed in an attempt to get to the baby Jesus.
Yeah, that’s right, the slaughter of the innocents is a Christmas text. I thought knowing that might warm your hearts. You’re welcome.
How could that possibly be a good idea?
I don’t know about you, but massacring a bunch of babies doesn’t fill me with yuletide cheer. Right?
This doesn’t sound anything like roasted chestnuts and little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two.
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.
Doesn’t seem to fit, does it? This surely doesn’t square with culturally approved saccharine celebrations of Christmas. It’s too raw, too real, too depressing.
This sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel, not a part of the Christmas story. How can recounting Herod’s bloody campaign against the babies of Bethlehem move the Christmas story forward?
Hold that question in your mind for a moment as we talk a little bit about what’s going on.
This coming Friday, January 6th is the celebration of Epiphany—which is to say, the revelation of Jesus as God’s messiah. The traditional Gospel reading for Epiphany is the visit of the Magi—you know, the whole gold, frankincense, and myrrh story, gifts to the baby Jesus from gentiles from the East (most likely, modern day Iran and Iraq). That story is found in Matthew 2:1–12, which is, of course, immediately prior to our Gospel for today.
The part of the story of the Magi that also isn’t usually the focus of Hallmark Christmas special is that when King Herod found out the Magi were coming to Judea to pay homage to this newborn “king of the Jews,” Herod tried to enlist them in helping him find the baby. Of course, what Herod wanted with the baby Jesus was to kill him, thus eliminating any threat to his own power.
However, the Magi were warned in a dream about King Herod’s deadly intentions and went home by another route, thwarting the king’s plans for killing baby Jesus—which brings us to our text for this morning.
Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ dad, has yet another visit from an angel, who tells him to pack up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster and head down to Egypt to escape Herod’s notice.
Meanwhile, Herod, having just had his plans foiled by those meddling Magi, hatches another plot to kill off his presumed rival. He sends out his minions to Bethlehem to round up all the baby boys under two years old and put them out of his misery.
Now, I’ve made King Herod sound like a bumbling old crank, anxious about how to retain power—but mostly capable only of accidentally mixing up his toothpaste with his Preparation H. But in reality, King Herod was a thin-skinned narcissist who lashed out vindictively against any perceived threat to his power. He had three of his own sons and one wife killed, because he sensed they were plotting against him. This was a guy who, though perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed—but a tool nevertheless, had the capacity and the will to wreak havoc on the world … a deadly combination.
But Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus made it out. They ran for their lives from the danger posed by their own government, finding a home in a foreign land.
Given the current political climate, we ought to be outraged by the Holy family’s exploits. I mean, Matthew doesn’t say anything about the Egyptian vetting system. Matthew doesn’t seem to care about whether they were living on the public dole in Egypt, using the social safety net constructed to help deserving Egyptian tax payers.
Let’s be honest, if they knew and given their current stance on refugees, more Christians should find Jesus’ refugee status troubling.
As a side note, it’s important to remember that the experience of the Holy family escaping political persecution isn’t an exception when it comes to refugees, it’s in many cases the definition. We who follow Jesus, we who descend from those refugees who originally fled with Moses from Egypt, ought to be the first ones stand up and advocate on behalf of refugees.
Ok, back to our story. We’ve got Jesus, Mary, and Joseph packed off to Egypt. But back home in Bethlehem we have a blood bath. The best scholarship suspects that since Bethlehem was such a small town “all the boys two years-old and younger,” probably amounted to about 20 babies. Notice I didn’t say “only” 20 babies. Because if it were your toddler, one baby would be a nightmare. Twenty babies in a small town is apocalyptic.
You can imagine the horror. The florists are scrambling to find enough flowers for every grieving family. The principal down at the high school has called in outside help from the therapeutic community in an attempt to provide counseling for all the older brothers and sisters. The undertaker hasn’t been home since Tuesday, grabbing naps on the couch in his office. Friends see each other in the Kroger, and they dissolve in tears in each other’s arms. All the flags are at half-staff, and everything is draped in black crêpe.
Now, if you’re Mary and Joseph, you’re pretty relieved you got a divine heads-up on the coming massacre. But if you’re one of the other forty parents, what then? How do we explain this story to them as a product of divine providence? Because any way you slice it, these forty parents have a legitimate beef with God. Why them and not us?
The way that we’ve tended to try to justify the divine intervention on Jesus’ behalf in this story is to say that there’s no way that tipping off all the parents of two year-old boys would have worked. Because, King Herod, as small-minded and insecure as he was, would have found he’d been duped again—and then what does he do? Maybe he goes after the parents and slaughters them. Maybe he’s so angry he massacres the whole town of Bethlehem.
And then the further justification of this story centers on our inclination to excuse the difficulties it presents because of the resurrection.
What do I mean?
Well, it’s a bit too easy to say, “The experience of the slaughter of the innocents and for those who loved them is redeemed by the work Jesus eventually accomplishes in the resurrection.”
But seriously? You think that’s going to fly? Which is another way of asking how it is that Herod’s slaughter moves the Christmas story forward.
The truth of this story, the grim portion of the Christmas story that doesn’t find its way into the Hallmark Christmas Specials, is that Jesus is born into a world that kills children to protect those in power. And we ought not to look too far down our noses at these pre-modern hayseeds from the Palestinian boondocks either. We know all about how those in power seek to trade the lives of children in order to maintain a claim on political power. Flint, Michigan is just up the road, after all.
Just because we believe that the work Jesus ultimately accomplishes is precisely what this world needs, we should never be so callous as to say that it magically takes away all the pain of the world. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The gospel—the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—is not a consolation for those whose children are murdered. Rather, those who would follow and worship Jesus are a challenge to those who would kill children.”
The church is called not only to speak up on behalf of the vulnerable, but to place itself in the path of the powerful who are always more concerned to maintain their power at the expense of the powerless. One of the most important words in the Christian vocabulary is “no.” It’s a word I think we’re increasingly going to have to familiarize ourselves with heading into the new year.
No. We won’t stand idly by as children are sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
No. We won’t allow refugees to be treated as anything less than fellow travelers, as those who occupy a special place in the heart of the one who was himself a refugee and an exile.
No. We aren’t going to remain silent while tyrants threaten our neighbors, belittle the women we know and love, discriminate against those without the power to defend themselves.
We follow Jesus. We can’t look the other way as Rachel weeps for her children.
The gospel is not only freedom from that which binds us, but a freedom for.
Because of the work of Jesus we’re freed from lies the world tells itself to justify its love of violence, and freed for the work of standing between the powers and principalities and those who are otherwise helpless.
Because of the gospel we’re freed from the need to push our way to the front of the line, and freed for the purpose of helping to restore the dignity of those who always seemed to get pushed to the back.
Because of Jesus we’re freed from our penchant for ignoring the evil around us, and freed for a new life that allows us to seek out and embrace Rachel as she grieves for the lives of her children.
It’s no newsflash that Rachel still weeps. But this Christmas we have not only the opportunity, but the duty to see that Rachel’s grief becomes our own, and moves us to say “no” to the powers that continue to threaten her children.
It won’t be easy, but I fear it will be necessary.