Lament. Denounce. Hope. Serve.
“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
So, tells Matthew in 2:7-8, said King Herod to the wise men after learning from them that the king of the Jews had been born.
In related news, Matthew also tells us that Herod was “frightened” at this little nugget of information.
Any self-respecting King should have been self-respectingly frightened, for what is a king if not one who has power, and doesn’t mind that reality in the least, and therefore has a vested interest in keeping matters as they are.
So that whole line about wanting to pay homage to the baby king, Jesus then being the potential de-throne-er and Herod the potential de-throne-ee, dripped with duplicity and feigned religious belief for the sole purpose of preserving his own political power.
Sure is a good thing that never happens these days.
And then comes the text for Sunday, January 1: Matthew 2:13-23:
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 fulfill 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.”
Herod killed the baby boys.
Out of far more than just fright, Herod acted out of a toxic mix of paranoia and an addiction to power, and killed these baby boys.
What a horrific return from the Christmas break into the reality of the world as we know it, and as it has been long known: a world where the powerful can and often do wield woe on the most vulnerable, and poor, and defenseless.
And what another shocking reminder that everything about Jesus’ birth and the days after it are bound up in the politics and social realities of the day.
Whether you read the Christmas story in Matthew, with his intentional inclusion of socially outcast women in his (traditionally patriarchal-dominated) genealogy of Jesus; Luke’s rendering of Mary’s redux of Hannah’s song at the annunciation, the harmony of these two women singing God’s continual promise to lift up the lowly, to send away the rich, and (perhaps a line even known by Herod) to throw mighty and oppressive rulers from their thrones; Luke’s story of Caeser’s tax policies being the very cause of the census that called Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in the first place; the smelly, poor shepherds (and not the lofty religious of the day) being the first hearers of the news of Jesus’ birth; and then back again to Matthew’s heart-rending story of soldiers massacring innocent babies to preserve the king’s waning grasp on power: The story of God’s entry into the world in the form of Jesus is nothing if not a political and social act…and, of course, thankfully, a redemptive one too.
But it is redemptive at the cost of much suffering: one doesn’t need redeeming if one is not in need of redemption.
The brutal story of the murder of the babes, with the barely repressed visions of mother’s grasping the nursing infants at their breasts, trying to hide them under their cloaks from the onslaught of all the king’s men; and the barely repressed echoes of the weeping in the streets and the cry–that ancient cry heard even from the long-dead Rachel–for the innocent breaths that were no more, and the gasping breaths of those who lived to tell the tale: the scene is still brutal to our hearts, and minds, and sensibilities.
And it is still happening.
Rulers still kill–in any number of ways–to preserve power.
And people still act as ambassadors of these same rulers out of fear, or blindness, or apathy to the consequences of their service to those on the thrones.
That said, that said, there is a curious interplay in these texts.
We have laid bare before us the sheer truth and pain of the wretched murder of the Innocents.
But we also have the sheer truth and hope that we must not bend to the penultimate powers (that is, the powers that hold sway for the moment).
Instead, in the name of the Incarnate One, to Emmanuel, we are called to serve instead the true-er Power, the holy Power, the very one that is, in fact, found in vulnerability, and in weakness, and in honesty, and in poverty, and in the outcast…and yet also in the turning over of the tables when false powers begin to hold sway.
So this is not passive, quietistic, allow-the-slaughters-to-continue acquiescence to power. No. It is, in the name of God, a naming of the false powers, a grieving of their manifest strength, and a bold and intentional and public refusal to serve them as well…taking our lead not least of all from the Wise Men of this story themselves…but to go home by another way, and serve the true King instead.
Christopher Morse wrote a chapter on these texts in a marvelous book published by Westminster John Knox entitled Social Themes of the Christian Year: A Commentary on the Lectionary. In it, he writes this:
The truth of the matter is that there is finally no cause for rejoicing if there is no consolation for the grief of Rachel…The call of faith is to join with her in the unmasking of all false hopes. (54).
It is true: there can never be complete joy until all experience joy complete. It is holy to remember the innocent victims across the ages.
That said, we are called to be people of joy, a joy which will not come to pass until false hopes (and joys) are revealed. To that end, Morse also says this:
…A truly Christian realism will define what is realistic by what happens in and to Jesus Christ, and not by so-called pragmatic considerations to which reference to Jesus becomes finally a mere appendix. The good news which only God can make significant is seen in these readings of Advent and Christmas as the hope which only God can give. It is the hope to which the God of our Lord Jesus Christ calls us in giving us knowledge of him (Eph. 1:17-18). This hope is vastly different from conventional optimism and it unmasks all false hopes.
That is, even when it seems that all evidence is to the contrary, we do have hope.
The cries of the innocent move us, paradoxically, to find the hope that is not found in the ways of tyrants, but in the way of a babe born in a manger, who grows up to incarnate healing, and welcome, and satiation, and forgiveness, and new life…and who invites those who call him King–as opposed to bowing to other early and toxic rulers–to do the same: to heal, and welcome, and satiate, and forgive, and offer new life and new beginnings even to those who have caused great harm…including ourselves.
We do this on behalf of the hope found in Jesus, and on behalf of Rachel, and and on behalf of the murdered babies of the story, and on behalf of those mothers who wailed and railed against the false powers of the day.
Matthew’s painful text on this Sunday’s lectionary calls us to lament.
It calls us to denounce.
But it also calls us to hope.
And it calls us to, in all we do, serve the true Power of the day.
Peace to you.
(See also: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/20/my-take-reclaiming-the-politics-of-christmas/)
One more thing: It’s dawned on me that not all OMG subscribers get word of my regular newspaper columns!
Here are two published just last week with wishes of a Happy Hanukkah and a Merry Christmas to you all.
Thanks Anna for this very helpful reflection.