December 27, 2015
First Sunday After Christmas
You see, the real issues about peace are, in fact, religious. And religious voices must not be silenced by the ‘realism’ of policymakers, because now the real issue is what is happening to our humanness and what will happen when we have a new generation of young people who are incapable of blushing over the inhumanity. But Jeremiah’s contemporaries called him traitor because they were cut off from noticing and feeling and caring and being transformed.
After the astrologers had departed, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I give you instructions. You see, Herod is determined to hunt the child down and destroy him.”
So Joseph got up and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt. There they remained until Herod’s death. This happened in order to fulfill the prediction of the Lord spoken through the prophet:
I called my son out of Egypt.
When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued orders to kill all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. This corresponded to the time (of the star) that he had learned from the astrologers. Then the prediction spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.
After Herod’s death, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel; those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. He heard that Archelaus was the king of Judea in the place of his father Herod; as a consequence, he was afraid to go there. He was instructed n a dream to go to galilee. So he went there and settled in a town called Nazareth, in order to fulfill the prediction of the prophets that he will be called a Nazorean.
Matthew 2:13-23 (Scholars’ Version)
This is the lectionary text for the first Sunday after Christmas, Year A. It is a story, for obvious reasons, that is not emphasized at Christmas. If it is read at all it is read once every three years on “low Sunday” where low means low attendance, the Sunday after Christmas when fewer people attend worship than usual.
The story is referred to as the Flight to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents.
On Christmas Eve I shared some stories about the birth of Jesus from the later tradition. One such collection is from The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior. Today it is referred to as the Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew. It was written around 600 CE.
The Flight to Egypt gets some attention in that legend. Just before Herod slaughters all the male children two years and under, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to go to Egypt through the desert.
While in the desert on the journey Mary, Joseph, Jesus and family come across dragons, lions, panthers, and wolves and at the command of the infant Jesus they bow down to him and help the family on the journey. Madeleine L’Engle has created a wonderful children’s book based on this story called Dance in the Desert. It is a beautiful story with enchanting illustrations. I highly recommend it.
On the third day of the journey, Mary is fatigued. She sees a palm tree and asks Joseph to stop and get some fruit. Joseph quibbles with her saying that the fruit is too high and that water is more necessary. The infant Jesus commands the tree to lower its branches to Mary so she can pick the fruit. He commands a vein of water to be opened in the earth.
The palm tree story also inspired the Cherry Tree Carol. In this carol the fruit are cherries and in the carol Mary is pregnant and Joseph is angry and doubting Mary. He says in anger, “Let the father of the child get you cherries.” From the womb, Jesus commands the branch to lower itself to Mary.
A version of this story is in the Qur’an. God speaks and Mary becomes pregnant. She is alone and she is afraid and when she is about to give birth she is under a palm tree. From the womb, Jesus tells her to shake the palm and get dates and provides water for her as well. She gives birth and when she brings the child to the community, they accuse her of having a child out of wedlock, but Baby Jesus himself speaks and sets them straight.
Back to the Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew. As the holy family continues the journey, Joseph still concerned for water asks Baby Jesus if it would be a good idea to leave the desert and journey along the shore so they could rest in the cities along the coast. Jesus has a better idea. Jesus says:
Fear not, Joseph; I will shorten the way for you, so that what you would have taken thirty days to go over, you shall accomplish in this one day. And while they were thus speaking, behold, they looked forward, and began to see the mountains and cities of Egypt.
He teleports the family to Egypt.
One might think, he could have done that at day one. The miracles keep on coming. While in Egypt, they go into a temple in the city of Sotinen. There are 355 gods in the temple and at the sight of the Blessed Mary and Jesus the idols fall down prostrate and shatter.
The governor of the city hears that the gods have shattered and brings his army to the temple. When he sees what has happened and sees the Blessed Mary and Jesus he adores them and commands his army and the whole city to worship Jesus or else he fears they will face destruction that Pharaoh and his army faced back in the day with Moses. As we know, Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the sea because they didn’t believe. And the text says:
Then all the people of that same city believed in the Lord God through Jesus Christ.
Thus the journey to Egypt ends. The text continues:
After no long time the angel said to Joseph: Return to the land of Judah, for they are dead who sought the child’s life.
One could at this point ask an impertinent question. If Jesus could tame dragons and wild beasts, command palm trees to obey, find water in the desert, teleport the family to Egypt, force idols to bow down and shatter, couldn’t he have stopped Herod from slaughtering the children? That question is not even asked let alone answered.
Once we ask that question, we have entered the realm of theodicy, which is a fancy word that attempts to defend the indefensible. Why is there suffering and evil if God is all good and all powerful? If God or Jesus can do miracles there, why not here?
Theodicy is an attempt to make excuses for the theory of an all powerful, all good God. Those excuses range from God has a bigger plan, to God is teaching you a lesson, to God is punishing you, to God would have healed you, too, if you prayed more or believed in the right religion, to God is waiting for you to get your act together, and so on. I find none of those answers satisfying. I also find them to be insulting and harmful and dismissive of the actual experience of human beings.
On the question of theodicy, I cheat. I bypass the whole thing. I say there is no all powerful and all good God. So no defense of such a being is necessary. There is suffering, illness, and death. It is part of life. Our task is to make the best of it and to provide comfort along the journey to ourselves and to others. Life is a cup of tears and a cup of joy. We do well to know we must drink of both.
There are Herods in this world and their behavior is rightly called evil. With courage and compassion our task is to draw from the well of goodness and do what we can to stop people from hurting others, to advocate for and to comfort victims, to seek justice on their behalf, and to take care that we do not escalate the spiral of violence and become what we hate. If there is anything worthy of the name God, perhaps it is that well of goodness from which we might draw.
The one who draws from it is the hero. That is Matthew’s story. Matthew’s tale is also a legend. The slaughter of the innocents is a fiction. Now Herod the Great was an historical figure. History records that he was a ruthless rascal. He reported had members of his own family slaughtered to further his ambitions and paranoia.
But the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem likely did not happen. It is a story found only in Matthew’s gospel as part of the miraculous birth narrative. It is a story drawn from the Exodus story when Moses escapes Pharoah’s death sentence upon the Hebrew children. Pharaoh sees the Hebrews growing in population and wants to thin them out a bit. He has all the male children thrown into the Nile. Moses escapes in a basket in the bulrushes.
This is a common legend. It is the story of the destined child that we find throughout literature. From Moses to Jesus to Superman to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, the hero is chosen and destined for a purpose. In this case, as Moses grew up and saved the Hebrews from slavery, Jesus grew up and saved the people from sin. A legend is born.
Legends are wonderful. Over the break we watched the latest Star Wars film. I doubt I will give away secrets by saying that the Force takes on the Dark Side in this one. Christianity is no different. It just thinks it is. Part of the delusion of organized religion is that each thinks its stories are unique, special, and true. The others? Not so much. As I see it, while the characters change, and the plots are modified, the stories are essentially the same. The Force vs. the Dark Side.
The hero is born of humble beginnings, usually, but not always. He or she is chosen and destined to bring freedom or justice or enlightenment. She often resists the call, goes through a period of purging and self-discovery, struggles with weakness, finds in the weakness a hidden strength, draws from the well-spring of goodness and talent, and in the nick of time, fulfills the destiny, often at great cost to self.
What do you do with these heroic legends? You can externalize them. That is declare that the story is factual, and that the task is to worship the hero and make a religion about him. It is a passive approach. The hero does it for us. This is a common way in which the story of Jesus Christ is presented.
But another way to experience it, is to see the story as inspiration. The reason the legend of the hero’s quest is common and crosses cultures is because it touches a human longing and a human need. We might think we need a hero. What we really need is to be a hero.
Life is itself a hero’s quest. We are born and thrown into the task of self-discovery. We are taught language, meaning, place, and task. As we grow, we question it and we wrestle with what it is we are to be doing with our lives. Who am I? What is my quest? Where is the suffering, the hurt, and the evil that I need to confront? It could be within, and likely is, and also without. Where are Rachel’s tears? How do I respond to those tears, my own, and those of others?
As I look at you, I see heroes. Everyone of you. Each of you has a well of goodness. Each has a weakness that can become a strength. Each of you struggles with self-discovery, with disappointment, with loss, grief, and yet there is a task. Some of you know it, some may not. It isn’t necessarily the same task all of your life. There are times we need to discern and revisit what that task is, and reinvent who we are to be. Religion which is made up of stories, practices, and communities, is a place from which we draw inspiration. But at the end of the day, you are the hero.
The legend of Jesus Christ is the legend of love. Legends are true in the most important way. Jesus Christ who breaks the bond of sin is a story that is very true. I define sin as the inability or the unwillingness to love, and sometimes it is hard to tell between the two, that is inability or unwillingness. If sin is the failure to love, then breaking the bond of sin is breaking the barriers to love.
The legend of Jesus Christ when we internalize it is our hero’s quest to love. We give birth to love. We die to ways of being that are not loving, and we are resurrected to love anew. We continue the process throughout our lives, growing deeper in ways of love. We love in the presence of grief and tears. We love in response to evil and violence. We love in response to death. We love in response to joy. It is not the only hero’s quest available to us, but it is a good one.
I find that series of five lines regarding Rachel prominent this year for all of us. Rachel of course is the wife of Jacob who he loved most. If Jacob is the patriarch of Israel, in Genesis we find the story of Jacob’s name being changed by YHWH to Israel, then Rachel is the matriarch.
The children for whom she weeps are all the descendants killed in violence and who are victims of injustice. It is a poetic way of describing grief at its most intense. The grief of a mother over her dying children.
I am glad this story that we often skip over is present in the birth legends of Jesus. As we look back this year to the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, Charleston, Paris, and close to home Umpqua Community College, these five lines are real and true.
In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.
How true is this story today for refugees fleeing violence from the crazed, paranoid, and ruthless in Syria. They are the faces of the of the Holy Family fleeing Herod today. I am glad that Egypt didn’t refuse Mary, Joseph, and Jesus out of fear they might be terrorists.
There is a validation in Rachel’s tears. If love, known through the legend of Jesus Christ is to be true, it must not hurry over or cover over or wish away or ignore or get over or move beyond this. It must acknowledge and know Rachel’s tears and ours.
In a way that is hard to explain, I find comfort and meaning in the Jesus story, both the historical Jesus and in the legend of Jesus Christ. It is a story that continues to ring true.
I have a need for the legend of love as expressed in the story of Jesus Christ. I feel a danger of losing the capacity for love. I worry, I fear that my own grief may harden me, make me unable to care, or in the words regarding Rachel, make me permanently inconsolable.
I feel the danger that so much violence may cause us to be numb and callous. We may lose our capacity to lament. We may in the words of Walter Brueggemann, become “incapable of blushing over the inhumanity.”
There may be yet a birth, death, and rebirth ahead, a breaking of the bonds that hold back love. That will only happen when we recall Rachel’s tears and weep with her through our own bitter grieving. The first prophetic act is to weep. Weep enough tears to fill a well.
The second act is to draw from the well, yes, the well of our own tears transformed into a well of compassion, a well of goodness, a well of courage, that when we drink as a hero drinks, we will transform our lives and this world.
This, this, is the hope of Christmas.
Of God being born within and among us.