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.