Newcomers to this country are often surprised by how frequently Americans ask each other, “How are you?” In most other countries, such inquiries would be considered an invasion of privacy, or at the very least irrelevant to the conversation. Of course, newcomers are even more surprised to learn that this query is largely perfunctory. Indeed, there is only one “correct” response to this question. No matter what is happening in our lives, there is a collective cultural expectation that we will respond, “Fine” when someone asks us how we are. We are instructed and encouraged in this behavior from an early age. Even my 21 month old somehow knows to say “Good” when I ask her how she slept. While it may seem that there is nothing wrong with this, there is something troubling about this tendency. Our collective assumption that the only thing to say is “fine” when someone asks us how we are eventually convinces us that the only way to be is “fine.” When we force ourselves to be “fine,” we lose something elemental about the human experience.
What we lose is the opportunity to grieve. Sometimes being “fine” is not an option; sometimes, when we are faced with loss and uncertainty, grief is the only appropriate response. Yet, when we assume that “fine” is our baseline, grief becomes abnormal, something we need to dispense with as efficiently as possible. We end up thinking of grief as a process, something we can “do the right way.” We cannot, however, approach grief as a problem to be solved; it is something we must experience as a fundamental aspect of who we are. Indeed, grief is a centrally important part of our lives because loss is central to our lives. Part of mystery of being human is that we have the capacity to love even what we know we will lose. Grief permits us to recognize this paradox, because it allows us to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God. The ability to grieve is part crucial component of the Christian life. The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, notes that rite for the Burial of the Dead “finds all meaning in the resurrection,” which is God’s pledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the same time, the prayer book notes that human grief is not unchristian: that the deep sorrow we experience when we lose someone is animated by the love we have for one another in Christ.
There are times when we are not “fine.” There are times that we experience that deep pain of loss that is a fundamental part of the human experience. It is in these times that we need to summon the grace to grieve, to admit that we are not fine, and to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God.
Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.
A few weeks ago, an ecumenical colleague and I were driving to a seminar in Austin. Our trip took us through Zephyr (Texans are so good at naming places) and there we drove by a church with a sign that read, “The X belongs in Texas. Christ belongs in Christmas.” Clearly, the folks in Zephyr had opened up yet another front in the purported “War on Christmas.” Neither my friend nor I had the time or inclination to explain that the “X” in “Xmas” is the Greek letter “chi,” which is actually an ancient abbreviation for the name of Christ. The X, in other words, belongs both in Texas and Christmas. Part of the reason I wasn’t inclined to explain this is that I really think that all of the talk about the “War on Christmas” in those first weeks of December is mostly an excuse to get people to click on website links or watch sensational stories on the news or come up with somewhat clever church signs.
The reality is, however, that all of the skirmishes in the supposed “War on Christmas” take place before Christmas even starts. And once the season of Christmas has actually arrived, people forget about it! Across the country on December 26th, decorations are packed away, Christmas trees are literally thrown to the curb, and people stop saying Merry Christmas, even though there are twelve more days to celebrate the birth of our Lord. Surely this is where the real battle is being fought. Needless to say, I have, for the last two weeks, been a willing and possibly the only participant in this particular version of the “War on Christmas.” I have been the John Rambo of reminding people that it is still Christmas: I have encouraged people to keep their decorations up, I have corrected people when they refer to Christmas in the past tense, and I insist on saying “Merry Christmas” well into January. And so beloved, I take this moment on January 5th to remind you that it is still Christmas, that we are still observing the birth of our Lord, that we are still celebrating the Incarnation.
As a result of our celebration, we are in the somewhat unusual position of observing the second Sunday of Christmas, which does not happen all too often. In fact, the way our lectionary is constructed means that we in the Episcopal Church rarely have to deal with this challenging reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel. And this story of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents is nothing if not challenging. Matthew begins by telling us about an angel appearing to Joseph in yet another dream, warning him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions. Joseph wakes up immediately and escorts Jesus and Mary to Egypt by night, escaping from Herod and his minions in the nick of time and fulfilling a prophecy from Hosea to boot. It seems that everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow; everybody ends up safe and sound exactly where they are supposed to be and Jesus is well on his way to fulfilling prophetic and Messianic expectations. In the very next passage, however, Matthew tells us that Herod, infuriated by the duplicity of the wise men, sends soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every single child under the age of two. It’s a shocking jolt to the system. We were lulled into a sense of security, a knowledge that the heroes of the story were safe, and then we hear about a horrific massacre of innocent children. Matthew tells us that even this tragedy fulfills the prophetic words of 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.” After recounting this horrific event, Matthew moves on. He tells us that the Holy Family stays in Egypt until Herod dies, eventually moving to Nazareth, so that Jesus can fulfill yet another prophecy.
The challenge of this passage is not simply the horrifying fact that children were massacred, but rather the fact that Matthew can be so glib about it. It doesn’t seem to faze him all that much; he simply presents an account of the slaughter of the innocents, and then moves on with the narrative. In some ways, this may be related to Matthew’s almost obsessive preoccupation with presenting Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” predicted in Deuteronomy. After all, according to the account in Exodus, Moses also escaped from a similar slaughter of Hebrew children by an oppressive tyrant. Moses also saved his people by coming up out of Egypt. It could be that Matthew is simply unfolding those events that give us a sense of Jesus’ true identity. It could be that the slaughter of the innocents is just another event that proves Jesus is the prophet like Moses, the one who will save God’s people from their sin.
While there may be some truth to this, the Church has never fully accepted this explanation. We have never been so callous as to think of the slaughter of the innocents as the cost of doing business; it has always been an event that we have mourned as a community. It is no accident that we remember those Holy Innocents in a feast day on December 28th. It is no accident that one of the most important and enduring moments in the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors was when the women of Bethlehem sang the mournful carol we sang just prior to the reading of the gospel today. In fact, that carol is the one element of that pageant that survived, the one part of that experience that we wanted to make sure we remembered. Finally, I think that even Matthew expects us to mourn. Matthew is incredibly selective about the quotation he uses from Jeremiah to describe the slaughter of the innocents: “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.” In the very next sentence of the passage from which Matthew draws that quotation, Jeremiah says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.” Yet Matthew ends the prophecy with “she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.” In other words, Matthew chooses to end the quotation not with the promise of restoration that we hear in Jeremiah, but with the reality of a mother’s pain; not with hope for the future, but with the reality of loss; not with the prophet like Moses, but with an acknowledgment that the loss of a child is more than one can bear.
When I was born, I spent some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Looking back, it was a little absurd: I was full-term, eight pounds three ounces, and relatively healthy. I was at least twice the size of all of the other babies in the nursery, but apparently there were some issues with my heart. These were resolved relatively quickly and I was discharged from the hospital after a few days.
A few months later, my father was canvassing for our local Town Committee, which was Hartford’s answer to Tammany Hall. He had to knock on doors in our neighborhood, and because he understood the fundamental law that babies are good politics, he carried me along with him in a Baby Bjorn (or whatever they were called back then). Things were going well until he arrived at a house where a woman around his age answered the door. After my father gave his spiel, the woman said to him, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Terrified that he had violated the cardinal rule of local politics and forgotten someone’s name, my father stammered, “I’m sorry, I can’t recall meeting you.” The woman responded, “Both of our babies were in the NICU at the same time. Your baby made it, and mine didn’t,” and she closed the door.
“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.” There’s nothing my father could have said to this woman to console her. There’s nothing he could have said to help her make meaning of her child’s death, nor is there anything we could or should say to help a parent make meaning of her child’s death. In the same way, there’s nothing Matthew could say to make meaning of the death of those innocent children, except to acknowledge the pain and loss.
How do we find good news in this story about the murder of innocent children? How do we find good news in this story about a mother’s inconsolable grief? We cannot presume to make false meaning of these stories, we cannot hide behind clichés like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel.” These are well-intended but ultimately unhelpful responses to tragedy. The good news, the gospel that we affirm today, the reality of the Incarnation we continue to celebrate is that even though our world is ruled by tyrants and broken by sin and death, God came to dwell among us. The gospel we affirm today is that through Jesus Christ, God has experienced the pain of a grieving mother and the suffering of a frightened child. The gospel we affirm today is that on a cross outside of Jerusalem, God came face to face with Herod and Caesar and all the evil powers of this world and through Jesus Christ, God has said “no” to the power of evil.
And because God has said “no” to the power of evil, we have been enabled to say “no” to the evil powers of this world. When we see people who are being ignored, we are called to say “no” and reach out in love and compassion. When we see people who are wracked by hunger and thirst, we are called to say “no” and give them something to eat. When we see people oppressed because of who they are, we are called to say “no” and affirm their fundamental dignity and worth. When we see people without hope, we are called to say “no” and give them reason to hope. It is in this way, in the words of our Collect this morning, that we “share the divine life of him who shared our humanity.” It is in this way that we celebrate the Incarnation, not only during these twelve days, but every day of our lives. And as we celebrate the Incarnation, I pray that the one who came to dwell among us will empower us to stand in the face of tragedy and misery and say “no” to the evil powers of this world.
During the Second World War, an English priest was given the unpleasant task of telling a widow that her son had been killed in action. She had already lost her husband during the Battle of Britain; the priest knew that this newest piece of information would be completely devastating. He knocked on the widow’s door and held his breath as he waited for her to answer. As she answered the door, she saw the priest’s clerical collar and knew that the news would not be good. Tenuously, the priest said, “Madam, it grieves me to inform you that your son has been killed.” The widow’s response was surprising: “Won’t you come in for a cup of tea?” As the pair sat at the woman’s kitchen table, munching on biscuits and sipping Earl Grey, the priest observed quizzically, “Madam, you seem to be coping with this loss remarkably well. I certainly would not have felt able to invite someone over for tea if I had received the news you just received.” The widow mused, “I always have a cup of tea at this time. I’m told that when one faces devastating loss, one should strive to keep one’s routine. It’s the only way I can move forward.”
Today is Holy Saturday, the day that we remember the uncertainty that followed Jesus’ death. It is the day that we remember the grief of those closest to Jesus: the sorrow of his mother, the dejection of his friends, and the uncertainty of his disciples. In the liturgy for the day, we say the words of Psalm 130: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.” Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and waiting. Yet it is also a day of routine. It’s striking that in the accounts of Jesus’ burial, a primary concern of those who mourned Jesus was to ensure they observed the Jewish burial customs, that they did the same thing that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. Even more striking is how careful they are to observe the Sabbath, to take the day of rest appointed by Jewish law, to do the same thing they have done week in and week out for their entire lives. In the face of their grief, in the face of their uncertainty, in the face of the fact that their world had crashed down around them, those who mourned Jesus fell back on their routine, because that was the only way they could move forward.
There is a wisdom to routines. In the face of uncertainty and pain, routines can be an enormous comfort. Even as our world crashes down around us, we can cling to our routines and they can sustain us as we carefully move forward. But even as we return to our routines, we must always be willing to be surprised, to be jolted from complacency by a truth that transcends even the grief and uncertainty of this day. In the meantime, we are called to return to our routine, to gather in hope, and to wait for the Lord.
Over the past several weeks, members of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have been participating in a Lenten program on Wednesday night called “Near the Cross: Exploring the Passion through Many Lenses.” Every week, we have looked at the death of Jesus from a different perspective, including Scripture, visual art, and music. Last night, we gathered in the nave of Heavenly Rest and gained a liturgical perspective of the Passion by doing the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations of the Cross is an adaptation of the custom of offering of prayer at a series of places in Jerusalem traditionally associated with our Lord’s passion and death. In most cases, the congregation processes around the building to designated places in the church, each of which represents a different event from Jesus’ final hours. There are, for instance, stations that mark the moment when Jesus is condemned by Pilate, the moment the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, the moment when Jesus’ dies on the cross, and so on. Interestingly, there are also stations for events that are not attested to in Scripture: the moment that a woman wipes the face of Jesus, the moment when Jesus falls, and the the moment when Jesus meets his afflicted mother. While the idea of commemorating events in the life of Jesus that do not occur in Scripture may make some uncomfortable, the Stations of the Cross is not about giving a factual presentation of the Passion, it is about allowing participants to experience how the Passion might have felt. In this regard, the Scriptural allusions selected for the Stations are not quotations from the gospels, but draw from the entire bible. The station where the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother (one of the non-Scriptural stations) is a good example:
All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
In this station, the words of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Naomi’s lament from the book of Ruth are put on the lips of a mother who has lost her baby boy. Though we cannot know what Jesus’ mother was thinking as he was crucified, the Stations of the Cross invites us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in Mary’s place.
I’ll be honest; I have always found the Stations of the Cross to be challenging. Not only have I been uncomfortable with commemorating non-Scriptural events, Stations of the Cross also has a tendency to make me physically uncomfortable. By the end of the devotion, the small of my back begins to ache and I start limping on account of my bum knee. And in some ways, this is the point of the devotion. The Stations of the Cross connects us to the death of Jesus in a deeply physical way; it invites us to bring the Passion of our Lord into our bodies. I don’t mean to suggest that our aches mirror the pain that Jesus suffered; rather, our embodiment of the Passion helps us to understand it on another level. This is part of the reason that we are invited to fast during Lent. When we make Lent part of our physical nature, we have the opportunity to connect to God’s love for us in a new and different way. Rather than attempting to understand it, Lent invites us to feel the grace and love of God.