Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Christmas. We often think that once December 25th has come and gone, Christmas is over, and that this Sunday is “after Christmas,” but in fact the season of Christmas lasts until Epiphany on January 6. But what are we supposed to do with this strange chunk of time, the 12 days of Christmas as they are sometimes called? We often wonder, “What next?” after all the pomp and circumstance we have just participated in on Christmas Eve. The church year allows for this time to bask in the glow of our celebration and to rest and reflect on the meaning of incarnation in our lives and in the world. But after the euphoria of Christmas Eve and Day, the lectionary readings for the Sunday or Sundays in Christmas often seem out of place or even in conflict with the overwhelming joy we have just experienced.
Our passage from Matthew for today is one of those contradictions, so it’s no surprise that this story doesn’t often make it into our annual Christmas celebrations. Gone is the cute baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a cozy looking manger with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi, animals, and an angel all looking on serenely. This passage from Matthew is dark, messy, and disturbing. It is full of fear, anger, confusion, uncertainty, and anguish. It is utterly and completely…human.
Contrary to many of the Christmas carols we know and love (and have been hearing on the radio incessantly since before Thanksgiving), joy is not the overriding emotion of the Christmas story; fear is. In the gospel of Luke, when the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, Luke tells us, “he was terrified and fear overwhelmed him.” When Gabriel later appears to Mary, scripture says she was “greatly perplexed” prompting Gabriel to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” When the angels appear to the shepherds later in chapter 2 they are terrified. Back in Matthew, when an angel appears to Joseph the first time, it says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” When the Magi show up from the East and tell Herod they are seeking the child born king of the Jews, we are told “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Finally, when Joseph returns from Egypt with Mary and Jesus to find Herod’s son in power, he was afraid to go to Judea so he goes to Galilee instead. What is everyone afraid of? Shouldn’t they be happy? It’s Christmas for God’s sake! Tis the season to be jolly!
Fear and perplexity don’t fit with our conception of Christmas because we often remove all traces of fear, awe, and danger from the Christmas story, making it an overly sentimental bedtime story, rather than a powerful remembrance of God’s action in the world. There is no room for this type of sentimentality in Matthew’s Christmas story, and yet, sentimental fluff is what Christmas is often reduced to in our culture. I guess refugees and murder don’t sell many toys and candy canes. The eminent theologian Stanley Hauerwas has even said, “One of the greatest enemies of the gospel is sentimentality, and the stories surrounding Jesus’s birth have proven to be ready material for maudlin sentiment.“ But what is it about Christmas that makes it so easily trivialized? And why is that such a problem?
This year has been an interesting holiday season for the people of Venezuela. Following suit with many U.S. retailers in their rush to satisfy consumers the quickest, President Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela declared the arrival of Christmas to be on November 1, because (and I quote) “we want happiness for all people.” This announcement came on the heels of Maduro’s creation of a new cabinet position: Deputy Minister of Supreme Happiness. He even paid out all the Christmas bonuses by December 1. “An early Christmas,” Maduro declared, “is the best vaccine against rioting and violence.” Coincidentally, December 8 was an election day in Venezuela. Unfortunately for Maduro, his tactics did not fool the Venezuelan people as easily as he had hoped. They saw through his plot to buy their political complacency, redirecting the conversation to the growing economic crisis, the shortage of food, and the spike in crime in their capitol city.
We laugh at events like this because they seem like caricatures. But is Maduro’s Venezuela really all that different than our America when it comes to the sentimental associations we have with Christmas? It seems to me that something is pervasively wrong when Christmas is used as a happy pill in an attempt to anesthetize a population into forgetting the injustices happening all around them (Christmas = Happiness? Not for Mary, Joseph, Jesus, or anyone else who was actually involved!). If we open our eyes, we will see the same thing happening here in our country. This is exactly what Hauerwas was talking about when he said, “sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of the gospel.” When we reduce the action of God in the Christmas narrative to fluff, we are attempting to declaw the gospel. We are effectively trying to neutralize its power. This is why trivializing the incarnation of God is such a problem. Maduro was more right than he imagined when he said an early Christmas was the vaccine for rioting! His version of Christmas, and the version we too often buy into, is an attempt to maintain the status quo, to keep Jesus as a cute, non-threatening baby in a manger, rather than allowing him to flee to Egypt and then to Galilee, where he will grow strong in the wisdom of God and return to challenge the powers and principalities, the Herods, of this world, ultimately defeating them through his death and resurrection.
Wrestling with this passage from Matthew can help us guard against this kind of overly sentimental view of Christmas. The centerpiece of this excerpt is the infamous Slaughter of the Innocents, a horrific event the church has historically remembered on December 28, the feast day of the Holy Innocents. Matthew relates the tragedy with journalistic detachment: “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 younger, according to the time he had learned from the wise men.” Here we see the human flight from God in all its wretchedness expressed in the most realistic way. We see how political power functions in its desperate bid to maintain its influence at all costs. We see that the Herods of this world will stop at nothing to avoid relinquishing what little bit of control they think they have, even if it means destroying the most vulnerable and innocent. Herod’s violence leads to the dissonant note of Rachel’s weeping, which leaps out of Matthew’s recounting of the story: “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.”
We must contend with the lamentation of Rachel. Her weeping is loud and painful. It refuses to be consoled. By bringing Rachel into the Christmas story, Matthew is forcing us to deal with the pain and suffering and violence of life. This excerpt is meant to shake us out of our complacency and make us deal with the grieving and inconsolable. Now you may be thinking, “am I missing something? I don’t remember a Rachel in the Christmas story.” And you would be right. There is no Rachel in this story up to this point. Matthew is not referring to a specific person or character in this story, but to an archetype in Jewish thought and literature that comes out of the Hebrew Scriptures. By recalling the archetype in verse 18, Matthew is making a very significant theological point. In Genesis, Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, struggled with infertility but eventually got pregnant and then died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. The Rachel of Genesis called to mind for the Jewish people physical pain, the uncertainty of life, loss of loved ones, death, and suffering in the course of nature. According to Jewish tradition, Rachel was buried in Ramah near Bethlehem, on the road into exile. When Jeremiah calls on the name of Rachel, she represents the suffering of the people of Israel under oppression by political power. Her wailing is as a result of the exile of God’s people. Therefore, when Matthew cites Rachel at the murder of the innocents, he is bringing all of the history of associations with her name to bear. Rachel in Matthew represents both the pain associated with death and with the political oppression of God’s people. She exemplifies the things which most threaten to destroy human hope in the world. The fact that she refuses to be consoled highlights our own human inability to give hope to those whose hopes are crushed and who sit devastated in the wake of death.
Death—it’s quite a taboo topic in 21st century America. We avoid thinking about it and try not to talk about it. We spend vast amounts of money attempting to stave off the effects of aging so that we can put off thinking about our own deaths. We use phrases like “passed away” and “gone to be with angels” and “crossed over” to keep from saying, “died.” We go to great lengths to make sure that, even in death, the bodies of our loved ones are preserved as they were alive for us to see them one last time. Journalist Judith Acosta calls America’s fear of death, “the most systematic—and systemic—delusion in world history.” This might explain why we often refuse to deal with this story during Christmas. If we don’t even want to deal with death at a funeral, why would we want to talk about it during Christmas?
This fear and avoidance of death even causes us to question our faith and ask questions like “If God is good, why does suffering and senseless death exist in the world?” What bothers me about this question is that the Bible is full of suffering and senseless death, and full of God’s merciful response to the suffering and death humanity causes. In our passage for today, Matthew illuminates God’s plan for salvation by highlighting the prophecy being fulfilled by Jesus but when he tells us of Herod’s violence the formula changes. Instead of saying “this happened so that Jeremiah’s prophecy might be fulfilled” like the other two scenes, which would imply God’s sanctioning of Herod’s violence for the fulfillment of prophecy, this time Matthew simply says “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah...” This is very intentional. By changing the formula, Matthew is saying something important about God: God does not cause the violence that leads to Rachel’s weeping (let me repeat that). But God does enter into it and transform it. Right here, in the second chapter of Matthew, not 18 verses after the birth of Jesus, Matthew clearly acknowledges and embraces the tension of suffering and death in the world and gives us a word of hope through it all— a hope that would be flimsy without Rachel’s weeping. We cannot console Rachel by our own power but God can.
After Rachel’s weeping pierces the night in response to Herod’s violence, the next sentence reads, When Herod died, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him that those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. Did you catch that? After all the fear and death he caused, the story continues with “When Herod died.” Although Herod’s methods for maintaining his limited earthly power were able to wreak temporary destruction, in short order, he is dead and God’s mission in the world marches on. The kingdoms of this earth and the methods by which they maintain power fade, but the upside down kingdom of God and the radical peace it brings will never die.
In 1973, in the South American country of Chile, a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the elected government. Pinochet and the secret police proceeded to detain and torture thousands of people they suspected of political opposition. A group of nuns, priests, and laypeople began organizing street liturgies in protest outside the building where the torture was happening. They would sing, preach, carry banners, and pray litanies that all called attention to, and challenged, what was happening inside that building. Of course, these liturgies would only last a few minutes before the police would show up and begin beating them, gassing them, hosing them, and dragging them away to prison. They called themselves the Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture, after a man who had killed himself when his two children were taken by the government. One of the beautiful things about the Sebastian Acevedo Movement is that they reversed the incredible isolation imprisonment and torture causes. By offering not only their minds and voices but also their bodies to the protests, they were reincorporating those who were taken captive into the community by intentionally sharing in their suffering. They took something designed to impose silence, and gave communal voice to its injustice. They created space for grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, Rachels, to give voice to their pain and use it to morally challenge those in power. They made the invisible visible so that something might be done about it. By worshipping in the street and calling attention to the immoral tactics of Pinochet, the Sebastian Acevedo Movement confronted the Herods of the world and consoled the Rachels among them.
Confronting the Herods and Consoling the Rachels—this would be a good mission statement for the Church. And I think this is why Matthew included Rachel and the Slaughter of the Innocents in his gospel. You won’t find this story in any other ancient source. Scholars suggest that there may not have been more than a couple dozen boys under the age of two in a village the size of Bethlehem. Too small a tragedy for history books to report. But it’s not small is it? By including this story, Matthew is boldly declaring that Herod’s attempt to silence opposition and history’s tendency to silence the lamentation of Rachels will no longer be tolerated. Christ has come to share with us in pain and death and not only give voice to Rachel, but also healing and transformation. This is also why we just participated in a service of lament as a community of faith. We are told by our society that grief should be silent, an individual act, one that isolates. When we come to voice our pain together and bear each other’s burdens, powerful things happen. We become the Church because we become like Christ who shared in our sufferings.
This is explained beautifully in Hebrews Chapter 2: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” This is the beauty of Incarnation. Despite all our violence, all our rejection, all our filth, God was not ashamed to become one of us, calling us brothers and sisters, and is still not ashamed to enter our mess now. This is the unspeakable hope of Incarnation. Because Christ came into this world full of pain and violence and experienced the worst of it, giving himself up to death on the cross, he is able to fully destroy death and violence by the power of his resurrection. When we remove the suffering and dirt from the Christmas story, we water down the power of the incarnation. The hope given to us by God at Christmas would not be as powerful if Jesus had not entered fully into the darkness of humanity. What good is Immanuel, God with us, if God is not present with us when life is most difficult, in the midst of pain, suffering, and death? What good is Jesus’s birth if we don’t have his death? What good is Christmas without the cross? What good is a Jesus that doesn’t confront the Herods and comfort the Rachels? What good is the Church, the Body of Christ, if we don’t confront the Herods and comfort the Rachels in Christ’s name?
If we look closely at Matthew’s Herod, it is difficult not to begin seeing his face as familiar. We, too, encounter power that will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo, oppressing the weak and powerless for the benefit of the few. Herods continue to wreak violence on the innocent and Rachel is still wailing all around us. The message of the gospel is that the way of Herod is not God’s way. The way of Herod dies and God grows stronger in the places that power and empire least expect resistance, like a poor Jewish family in first century Palestine and a backwater town that nothing good could come from. Jesus embodied that resistance as he grew and taught and died. And as Christ’s body, we are called to continue his work in the world. This Sunday in Christmas allows us to reflect on the incarnation but also to understand the call of the gospel. We are Christ’s body in the world. If we do not stand up to the Herods of this world with the truth and power of the gospel of Christ, then who will? Christmas is an opportunity to reclaim our calling to participate in the live-giving mission of God in the world, proclaiming an alternative to the powers and institutions that oppress the weak and trample the poor and that seek the lives of the vulnerable among us. The first thing we need to do in order to join God on mission in the world is stop trivializing the power of the Gospel of Jesus. Our sentimentality about Christmas often empowers the Herods and silences the Rachels when the real message of Christmas ought to confront the Herods and comfort the Rachels just like Jesus did. The second is to live out the powerful message that God enters our darkest places and transforms them. God is not ashamed to embrace our humanity fully and transform it from the inside out. The trick is that unlike Herod, we must be willing to let God in. Our ever-present help in this mission is Christ, who took on flesh so that we might be saved from sin and death. Perhaps for the next few days of Christmas, we will be comforted by the depth and beauty of God’s incarnation and strengthened to go out to a world that desperately needs the good news of Christ, confronting Herods and consoling Rachels with the only hope that has the power to heal and make whole again.