Christmas is a season, not a day, and so today we focus our attention on the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. As a child, surveying the faults within my own human family, I was always mildly uncomfortable on this feast, because it seemed unfair to expect families to live up to the ideals of Mary and Joseph’s homelife. It seemed to me that their household was one of warmth and nurture and sweetness and mine was not. Now that I’m an adult I realize a few things about this Holy Family and the life they were given.
Jesus did not remain peacefully in the manger. Mary and Joseph weren’t able to simply return to their home in Nazareth after the birth of their child and settle down to a normal life. The oppression under which they lived broke in on this family and forced them to flee, to become refugees in a foreign land.
It is very difficult for us to know what to make of this rather gruesome story, so often we simply ignore it. Whether it is historically accurate or not is beside the point. The fact is that Herod was a brutal ruler and many of his atrocities are well-documented. He was such a tyrant, in fact, that he realized on his deathbed that everyone was waiting to rejoice at the news of his death, that literally no one in Judea would mourn his passing. So he summoned dozens of important leaders from all over the country, people who were respected and beloved by their people, and he had them imprisoned. He gave orders that when he died all of these men would be executed. This was his way of guaranteeing that there would be lamenting and grieving throughout all of Israel when he died.
Besides being cruel, Herod was also paranoid. He killed one of his wives and her mother when he thought they might be plotting against him. He had two of his own sons executed for fear that they might attempt to take his throne from him.
And only a short time before Jesus’ birth, he killed two of his own sons for fear that they might try to take over his throne before he died. With all of this murder going on, it wouldn’t be at all surprising that Herod might have had some sixty or so other boys killed, either. And it’s little wonder that when so many Jewish leaders were waiting to be executed, the murder of a few children in a small village would have been overlooked by most people. So this story, although there are no independent attestations to it, has the ring of truth about it.
Theologically, we have no satisfying explanation to why God allowed the baby boys of Bethlehem to be slaughtered. Joseph was warned in a dream and fled. Why weren’t other fathers also warned? The argument that all of this was “God’s will” doesn’t satisfy either because children continue to die prematurely in our time. It cannot be God’s will that relatively wealthy white babies survive while relatively poor children of color around the world die from diseases for which we have had vaccinations and cures for decades., and why so many terrible things continue to happen today.
So what are we to do with this story? How can we make sense out of it? And as we prepare to begin a new year, how can we have hope that this year will be any better than previous ones as the assault on the world’s children continues? There are some affirmations in this story that give us cause for hope. There are some things we can learn about how God acted then that give us reassurance of how God acts today as well.
The first affirmation is that God does indeed act in history. The Jewish Christians in the early church who read Matthew’s Gospel for the first time would no doubt have recalled the birth of another child more than 1000 years earlier whose life was also threatened, but who survived to become a savior for his people. That child was, of course, Moses.
Moses was born at a time when another king, the pharaoh of Egypt, had issued a decree that all Hebrew boys were to be put to death. Moses, of course, was saved from death by the faith and ingenuity of his parents who hid him and by the daughter of pharaoh who eventually found and adopted him. In time, Moses became a great leader who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
So as the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s time read about this Jesus who was saved from a death decree issued by a tyrant they would certainly have recalled the story of Moses who was saved as a child under similar circumstances. This story was a reminder for Matthew’s community of the ways in which God acted through Moses to save their people in the past, and how God was still acting through Jesus to save the world in their time. For us, it is a reminder of God’s continuing work throughout history to bring victory, life and healing to all creation. It is a reminder that, even in the midst of suffering, God still acts today. It may be difficult for us to see God at work, and even more difficult for us to understand some of the ways in which that work is done. But we can be assured that God still cares and that God still acts.
The other important lesson in this story is that God understands all the difficulties and hardships we face. As we read about the events in Matthew 2, we must remind ourselves that God was present in Jesus. As Jesus survived a narrow brush with death, so did God, the giver of life. As Jesus experienced homelessness as a refugee in Egypt, so did God, the maker of all. God knows what it means to be human and to endure all the facets of human life that you and I must face.
Christianity teaches that Christ suffered for us, and usually we identify this statement with his death on the cross. But our story today reminds us that suffering was a part of Jesus’ life from the very beginning. He always faced hardships and difficulty. So the events of the crucifixion, as unique and important as they are, cannot be divorced from the life Jesus led prior to that time.
Furthermore, Matthew reminds us that not only did Jesus suffer for us, he also suffers with us. When we face difficult situations ourselves, we understand the words of Jesus from the cross, when he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When things are going badly for us, it can seem that God is very distant, that God is maybe even unconcerned with what is happening to us. Those feelings aren’t wrong. We need to allow ourselves to feel this pain and to lament our condition.
But there is more to that psalm than simply wondering where God has gone. Verse 24 reads, “He did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” Our text for today is an affirmation of that. For even as we weep as Rachel did for her children and as the parents of Bethlehem did for theirs, God weeps with us. For God’s son also suffered. And as we face sufferings today, God does not abandon us. God suffers with us.
So even though for many people, Christmas is over, the central message of Christmas is something we need to keep alive within us. 2011 will bring heartache and disappointment for people who are close to us and perhaps even to ourselves. Terrible things happen the world over: they did last year and they may well happen again in 2011. But that is just one reality. We can rest assured that in the midst of seemingly meaningless events God is still at work; and in the midst of apparent hopelessness God provides hope. This coming year, may we be more in tune to God at work so that we can share a bit more in the hope that God has to offer.