The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Christmas II—Year A; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-5, 19-23
The lectionary gives us a wild array of choices this morning. We could go with the first half of the 2nd chapter of Matthew and follow the magi’s trek from the East to Bethlehem. We could go with the latter part of Luke 2 and experience Jesus as a 12-year old ditching his parents in Jerusalem so he could go hang out with the elders, or we could go to a much darker place in the second half of Matthew 2 and watch what happens when a tyrant learns that he has been tricked. The first two options are perfectly acceptable, and beautiful, stories, but I don’t think we are being true to the bigger story if we don’t deal with Herod in this Christmas season because it is there that Christianity becomes really real.
Let’s remember the story. Herod heard that the magi were looking for this child born king of the Jews and secretly summons them. He asks them to search diligently for the child, and to bring him back news of where to find him, so that he could go and pay him homage too. Do you believe ol’ King Herod? Nooooo. Oh, he wanted to find Jesus alright, but only so he could remove him as a threat to his power. The magi indeed locate the Christ-child, and they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but magi were great discerners. They knew how to listen to intuition, how to read energy, how to make sense of the stars, and how to pay attention to dreams. So, when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they hightailed it back to the East by another road.
In the meantime, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and having already seen how that previous dream in chapter 1 had worked out for him, he was all ears. That angel told Joseph, “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 fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
And here’s where it gets so dark and tragic that even the lectionary can’t go there—our lectionary omits verses 16-18—but go there we must. These three omitted verses speak the unspeakable. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, 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 magi. 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.”
These omitted verses pass, and so does time. The lectionary picks back up with Herod’s death. 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 (and Archelaus was just as much a tyrant as his father), 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.
As far as I can tell, there are three entry points into this story. We will start with the easiest and work our way to the hardest.
First, we can identify with the flight into Egypt. We can meditate on the lengths to which God will go to protect this spark of divine life. This little child, whose humanity was so infused with divine promise and hope, represented a threat to everything that Herod stood for—power, privilege, prestige, wealth, and position—all to be protected at all costs. And God will go to the ends of the earth to protect the vision and hope that love really does reign supreme, that all God’s creatures have inherent dignity, and in this marvelously blessed and abundant world, that all are meant to thrive. Innocence, dreams, vision, hope—these are precious and are worthy of our best efforts to protect them.
So, as 2014 begins, what divine spark has God placed in your heart? What nascent hope, what fledgling dream, what budding vision has God given you, and what do you need to do to give it a chance to live? What do you need to do to nurture it, to protect it, to give it space to grow until it is ready to take flight? How do you need to tune your ears and align your heart so that you can read the signs and know when it is time to hold this dream safely close and when it is time to let this vision take full flight? Mary and Joseph and Jesus aren’t the only ones who need to flee to Egypt to escape forces that would snuff out this holy light, sometimes, we need to flee such forces too. But note well, our escape isn’t final and complete; it is only until we can gather the strength and courage to come back and face those forces with even greater power as God’s presence and power grow deeper and broader within us. Mary and Joseph and Jesus fled, but they also came back.
Our second entry point is harder. We can identify with Herod. Think about the last time you were betrayed or tricked, can you touch your rage? Can you touch that place of deep hurt? Granted, Herod had anger issues writ large; he splayed his rage murderously and innocents fell. We can’t get inside his head and heart to know what made him tick, and ultimately, what made him crack. This is so often the case. Whether it is the mass-shootings that are all too frequent, or the individual acts of violence that plague our cities and rural communities daily that don’t make the news, whether it is a bombing of a school in Pakistan or a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, or a suicide bomber in Iraq, or those who turned planes into bombs on 9/11, a threat to one’s identity, one’s power, one’s core beliefs can turn the best of human beings into the worst.
We don’t even make it out of the 4th chapter of Genesis before we start unleashing violence on one another. We all have the capacity for unspeakable things. Somewhere, deep inside of us, there lives a Herod waiting to be converted to love. Can you touch that part of your shadow? None of us wants to, but if we cast him into the outer darkness, it is there that he will do the most harm, lashing out at innocents as far away as some unnamed distant “other” or as close as those we love the most. No, it is better to bring him into the light, to explore what drives his thirst for power and privilege, to understand why he clings to his position, to understand his fear and terror, and to help him find a different place to stand. Maybe we would never commit such atrocities, but if you were to ask the parents of the young people who have committed these horrific acts of violence, many of them could never imagine their child doing such things either. Can we befriend the Herod that lives in us? Can we imagine that he is not beyond redemption? Could we dare to hope that God’s transforming love can melt a heart even as murderous and hard as Herod’s? I hope there’s hope for Herod because I would like to think there is hope for the Herod that lives in me.
The 3rd point of entry is perhaps the hardest. I read a reflection on this passage this week by Mike Stavlund that posed a question that still has me reeling, “Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it into Egypt?” There is an unmistakable tragedy in today’s passage, Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee into Egypt and all is well there; Immanuel, which means “God is with us” is safely tucked away while terror strikes Bethlehem.
But what about all those children in and around Bethlehem? What about all those parents who didn’t get warned in a dream, who had no means to escape? What about that voice that was heard in Ramah, wailing, lamenting, weeping, refusing to be consoled because her children are no more? If God has gone to Egypt, where is God with them? This is the question of the ages when tragedy strikes. For all the ways we usually sugarcoat it, there is no sugarcoating it today, God has left the building, so to speak.
What are we to make of it? What are we to make of this? First, can we just allow ourselves to enter into solidarity with the unspeakable grief of these innocents lost and their parents whose hearts have been torn in two? Can we take a moment of silence for all the innocents who have died the world over, who had no chance to flee, those who have died from illness they could not overcome, those who have died at the hands of violence, those who have died from natural disasters, those who have died from crushing poverty and civil neglect? Can we just take a moment to let our hearts break with all those who have ever had to watch a beloved die, then and now? Silence may be our first and best condolence. Let us observe a moment of silence for all innocents everywhere.
Observe a prolonged silence.
But we are still left with the question, “Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it into Egypt?” Well, God isn’t just made flesh only in Jesus’ flesh, but God was made flesh in human flesh; God was made flesh in our flesh. So, to the extent that we don’t flee this unspeakable grief and tragedy, to the extent that we can stay present, God is present too.
But I think we can go one step more. God may have fled to Egypt at this point in the story, but the Holy Family returns to the land of Israel. And by the end of the story, the kings, still scared, still threatened, still entrenched, still drunk on power and privilege, wealth and prestige and position, they, with the help of good religious folk, will seek Jesus’ life again. This time, he will stay. This time, he will plant himself right at ground zero of the most horrific of violence. This time, he will stretch out his arms and hold that violence until its power dies with his last breath, and the Lord of Love proclaims, “It is finished.” And all that will be left after that is for Love to rise and show us what truly constitutes the love and peace that passes all human understanding.
Jesus may have fled from Bethlehem, but he doesn’t flee the cross, and from that moment forward, we know that whenever and wherever unspeakable tragedy strikes, God is there, and there, God will remain, until life finds us again.
So, there is no escaping this hard tale. Whether we flee, whether we find Herod in our shadow, whether we are the innocents and their parents in Bethlehem, today invites us into the hard realities of this world. Christian faith doesn’t dodge the hard edges of life in this world; Christian faith stares straight into them and helps us find God in the ashes. Today, we are about as far away from that sweet stable in Bethlehem as you can get, but Jesus travels us with us—to Egypt, to Jerusalem, to the cross, to resurrection life—and that ensures that every road we travel, whether it be filled with joy or filled with sorrow, we will always travel with God. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 5, 2014