December 29 / Pastor Kelli Schmit
This story is sometimes called the Flight to Egypt or the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s a story about unjustifiable, unreasonable, unexplainable, unacceptable horror and, as one scholar put it, carnage. To be really honest with you, I struggled with this text. It hit way too close to home. I have a sweet two-year-old boy of my own. I can’t not read myself into this story. And while I’d like to focus on Mary, it’s hard not to think about the other mamas who weren’t so lucky.
I also struggled because today’s reading didn’t seem to be from thousands of years ago, but pulled directly from our headlines. We all know the stories – and the brutally painful images of adults and children – fleeing their homes and homelands looking for refuge. We know that there are places in this world that are not safe and that parents will do anything to protect their children. Some are successful…and some are not.
Why wasn’t safety granted to all the families?
Herod is not the only person in history who, feeling powerless and scared, decided to grab his power with anger and cruelty and do unspeakable things. We saw it happen with Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and unfortunately, the list could continue. This story generates questions that cannot be answered.
So even though we may not have answers today, the church is uniquely poised to be a place where we can remember hard and difficult truths about the world, and remember – remember – the people most greatly impacted by those truths. And what better time to hold these realities than Christmas?
For some, Christmas is not all twinkly lights and sugar plum fairies dancing in our heads. Some of us are celebrating our first Christmas without that special someone and that empty chair is practically screaming, or it’s our tenth Christmas but the deep ache remains. Some of us expected to sing Silent Night to a new child, one that didn’t arrive. Some of us are figuring out how to create new traditions because we’re alone after a relationship crumbled or after job loss forced us to relocate.
What does this story of hard truths have to say to us, especially during the time of angels singing o’er the plains and cattle lowing?
The magi have traveled from the east, following a star all the way to Bethlehem. They’re lost and ask Herod for directions to the newborn king of the Jews in order that they might pay him homage. They ask the one person who thought he was the king of the Jews. Our Gospel writer Matthew tells us: “When Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Why was all of Jerusalem afraid?
Herod was paranoid that people would remove him from power. His response to these fears was to kill anyone that posed a threat, including his wife and children. Herod also ordered that a great number of random people would be killed on the day he died so there would be weeping in the land, even if it wasn’t for him. What a gem. So being terrified is a completely justifiable response to Herod hearing a rumor that some newborn might eventually grow up and one day, hypothetically, possibly claim his role, power, and authority.
While we don’t have exact numbers, scholars hypothesize that since Bethlehem was a small village, this would probably have been around 20 children. With all that we know about Herod’s time in power, there is no non-Biblical mention of this event. Really? 20 kids – not a major event for Herod?
When Joseph and Mary get the all-clear to head back to Israel, instead of going home – going back to what was familiar and safe – Joseph and Mary change course mid-journey and start a brand-new life from scratch in Nazareth. No familiarity, no pre-established relationships, no foundation on which to build. The only pre-requisite is that the leader of the area wasn’t trying to kill their child. It’s no wonder this part of the Christmas story doesn’t make it into figurine form to display on our mantles and bookshelves.
About a thousand years before Jesus’ birth, the Babylonian military had invaded Israel and forcibly moved the citizens to Babylon. They were cut off from their homes, families, neighbors, livelihoods – all that was safe and familiar – and forced them to live in Babylon.
“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.” This is the emotional response. This is the hard history and story that people don’t like telling, but that is important to remember. This is the cultural history that is remembered when Herod’s atrocious demand is carried out.
So what are we to make of all this? Babylonian imperialism and Herod’s machinations. These stories are pretty much the worst things can get – it’s not about papercuts or stubbed toes. God is present when the world tries to convince us that God is absent.
God saw and remembers what happened when Rachel wept in Ramah. God saw and remembers what happened because of Herod’s paranoia. God saw it and does not forget about those lost to human acts of evil.
When atrocious events take place but don’t seem to make a blip on the scene, when the pain of our grief and loss and hurt don’t seem to register for anyone else, this story tells us that God sees it and that God is with us. God is present when it seems like God might be absent. The empty chair at the Christmas table or the deep, remaining ache…the empty arms that yearn to sway in a lullaby…the new traditions that have potential but that still hurt…we are seen and we are not forgotten.
God will not let human cruelty and empty hearts be the end of the story. God promises that even in our most primal, urgent, fearful anguish – we are not forgotten and this is not the end.
God assures us of this promise in the chubby, dimpled fingers of the baby whose birth we just celebrated. God assures us of this promise in the cries of agony from a cross constructed, yet again, by The Powerful’s fear. God assures us of this promise in the tomb that, in the new morning’s light, was revealed to be empty.
God promises to never, ever, be absent, and God doubled-down on this promise in the very name given to Christ: Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.