December 26, 2010

Now after they had left …

Passage: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:1-18, Matthew 2:13-23, Matthew 2:13

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’

“Now after they had left”; when you compare a picture of the dining room table made ready for guests to sit down to a Christmas feast with a picture of that same table after the feast has been enjoyed and guests have moved off to other parts of the home, this phrase—now after they had left—would make an apt caption for the latter picture.   This phrase is also a descriptive caption for the Sunday that follows Christmas; it describes where we are with respect to the Christmas story itself; it also depicts our service today compared with the packed services of Christmas Eve—now after that had left.

Matthew uses this phrase to introduce what happened to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus after the Magi leave; it is a part of Jesus’ birth narrative that is rarely ever read; not only do we do not like to read this part of the story it never makes it onto the front of Christmas cards.

Our Christmas celebrations, in practise, function as if the story ended with the Magi leaving for their own country by another road.  On Christmas Eve we sang about the little town of Bethlehem, “how still we see thee lie.”  Today we read of a very different Bethlehem; a Bethlehem with blood in the streets; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled.  It is no wonder we prefer to stop reading at the point where the Magi leave.  But Matthew won’t leave it there; he insists we go on—now after they had left.

1. I wonder what it is like for people who flee from their homes because of the threat of murderous intent of others.  In a news report last week we were told of the experience of some Iraqi Christians; only one Baghdad church is celebrating Christmas fully this year, as Iraq’s Christians fear a recurrence of the recent murders of their fellow parishioners and are forced to mark the occasion in the absence of more than 1,000 families who have fled.

This is more in keeping with the way Joseph and Mary “celebrated” Christmas—on the run.  I am sure that Joseph thought he had signed on to a challenging-enough assignment to obey God by taking a pregnant Mary to be his wife.  I am positive that when the angel encouraged him “not be afraid” he had no idea that things would go from difficult to being exceedingly difficult.

It had to be terrifying for him to think that Herod; a powerful king with significant reach; a man who killed his beloved wife Mariamne because of his paranoia over threats to his power and position; would be seeking to kill Mary’s baby boy.  Joseph has to be wondering what he has gotten himself into by being a dad to this child.  Did he ever wonder if believing God was simply too dangerous a thing to do?

Were there times while en route to Egypt when a sound in the darkness made Joseph jump?   Did he get much sleep most nights at all?   Out of fear of the unknown, did Mary sometimes cradle her newborn child and weep silent, bitter tears of terror and uncertainty as she did so?   They fled to Egypt and so had to rely on the kindness of strangers, which is always a dicey prospect.

We don’t imagine often enough what this was all like for Mary and Joseph, or for their little one.  But it could not have been easy.   It could not have felt safe.   It could not have been free from a deep-seated fear in the pits of their stomachs.

That such things happen to people (and have always happened to people) is itself an emblem of why the Son of God came here as Immanuel in the first place.  He came so that the day would come when there would be no more glassy-eyed stares of the refugee, of the politically terrorized, of the displaced, of the frightened child who—even when he looks to mom or dad for comfort—sees only his own terror reflected back at him from also their eyes.

Often Christmas becomes an escapist fantasy; on Christmas Eve many crowd to hear of shepherds, angels, and the little baby Jesus; a once a year effort of food drives, nursing home visits, toy collections, shelter dinners, and much good will.  But the gospel is relentlessly realistic; the Christ child suffers with us sinners.  Bethlehem shows us that God comes among us right into the midst life’s harsh realities; realities that we are all too well acquainted with.  This is one of the promises of this part of the Bethlehem story; God is with us not only when blessing abound but also—perhaps even particularly so—in the midst of harsh realities.

The author of the book of Hebrews said it this way: “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.”  Sufferings, I point out, that begin here in Bethlehem.

2. Herod the Great was an Idumean, not a Jew, and was appointed by the Romans.  He married Mairamne who was a Maccabean (royal family) to claim an appearance of legitimacy.  He had to fight for several years to take control of his kingdom, so he never felt secure.  He maintained a private security force and built six fortresses so he would never be far from a defensible refuge.  He killed other royal descendents so he would have no rival; on suspicion of family intrigue he killed his wife and one his sons.  Knowing he was not well liked he commanded that on his death political prisoners should be killed so there would be mourning throughout the land.  The slaughter of these children in Bethlehem is consistent with what we know of Herod.

In the movie The Nativity the massacre of these children is hinted at with scene of soldiers breaking into homes taking children from their screaming mothers; we are spared anything more graphic.  Still, I hate seeing this part of the movie; I have a visceral response to the wickedness of perpetrators and the helplessness of victims.  I understand why no one wants this Bethlehem scene on a Christmas card.  In fact, we really don’t like to talk of death at Christmas at all; we often opine that it is especially tragic to have to deal with the death of a loved one at Christmas.  We don’t want Christmas to be clouded with bereavement anniversary.  Yet this precisely what the gospel story says is part of Christmas.

This is a horror story; King Herod, threatened by the talk of a new king of the Jews massacred all the boy babies around Bethlehem; this would not be the last time in history that governments would try to solve problems by murdering Jews.  So horrific is this story that some call God into question; why was Joseph warned to escape and others not.  Such is the nature of evil; no sense is ever made of it.  I am not exactly sure why people impugn God for human wickedness.  The other point I would make is that it is an assumption that others were not similarly warned by God.  We simply don’t know.  I do understand that its wickedness causes us to lash out at anyone we think could have—or more to our point, should have—made a difference.

Matthew’s Christmas pageant ends not with shepherds spreading good news or happy Magi on their way home; his pageant ends with Rachael weeping for slaughtered babies.  Herod knew the baby boy was a threat to everything he built his kingdom upon; Herod joins other great political leaders of the century just past—Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao—those who didn’t mind a little murder, particularly of children, in order to advance great political ideals.

It is easy to decry leaders in far way places who sacrificed children to their political ideal or agendas; we feel good that such despicable things are not happening in a country such as Canada.  Children, we believe, have special protection under the law; preventing child abuse is everyone’s legal responsibility; no ideal, political or otherwise, in more valued than a child’s life—or so we think.

According to Canadian statistics cancer and heart disease caused more than half of Canada's 235,217 deaths in 2007.  When I read that in a Canadian Press news release this past November it was the number of deaths that caught my attention; particularly in relationship to another number and that is the number of abortions (not counted in the number of deaths because abortions are not classified as the death of a person).  In the year 2007, when in total 235,217 Canadians died, there were close to 120,000 abortions.

Nearly one in four pregnancies today results in abortion.  Less that 1% of abortions are because of rape and incest; less that 3% are for the alleged hard case of “health risk to the mother”.  So let me ask, what is the ideal that is so cherished among us that we are willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable among us—the child in the womb—is such staggering numbers?  Are we different than Herod?  Is the slaughter of innocents only the problem of Bethlehem in Herod’s reign; what about Canada in 2010 where we sing “God keep our land glorious and free”.

If Mary lived in Canada in 2010 given the circumstances of her pregnancy—clearly unwanted—what are the chances that the child would have been born?  Does not the faith of Mary and Joseph show us what we Christians should do—our faithful response to God is to give life.  The circumstances of pregnancy are not the overriding concern.

A December 11th a news story caught my attention titled: When is two too many?  It described how doctors in Canada are seeing an increase in the number of parents reducing a pregnancy from twins to one.  The euphemism for this surgical procedure is called selective reductions.  Whatever we name it a life was ended.  The author of the article went on to ask: when did children become a commodity?

In October, US President Obama signed a new law that prohibits the U.S. government from referring to the “mentally retarded” in any of its laws and regulations. The term to be used instead is “intellectual disability.”  The law is called Rosa’s Law, after a nine-year-old Maryland girl with Down’s syndrome. Her official classification at school was “mentally retarded,” which struck her mother as hurtful.  It is important to note that while we insist that harsh words are not used in regard to the mentally disabled, the most lethal words today in medicine are those that announce Down’s syndrome.  Today approximately 90% of all babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome in the womb are aborted.  It is far better to be diagnosed with terminal cancer as an adult than to be diagnosed with Down’s syndrome as an unborn baby. No cancer has a 90% death rate within a month.

The story of Bethlehem is far more realistic about life than we may care to think.

3.  I draw your attention to another feature of Matthew’s story.  In each of the sequences of events—the escape into Egypt, the massacre of the infants, the return to Nazareth—Matthew declares that a prophetic word spoken by the Lord through the prophets was being fulfilled.

In the escape to Egypt Matthew cites Hosea 11:1: “out of Egypt I have called my son.”  This is the re-enactment of Israel’s deliverance.  The Lord had promised Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people, who shall speak to them everything that I command.”  Matthew is linking Jesus as the fulfilment of that promise; as Moses, in Egypt was protected from the murderous hand of the Pharaoh in the bulrushes so Jesus was protected in flight to Egypt.

In the massacre of the infants Matthew cites Jeremiah (31:15); “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.”  Jeremiah's word about Rachel weeping for her children at Ramah is a poetic reference to the time when the Babylonians wiped out Israel and enslaved its people. Ramah was one of the main shipping-off points for the refugees being sent to Babylon. Rachel is an Israelite matriarch—she is Jacob’s beloved wife; Rachel is also the mother of Benjamin, the tribe to which King David belongs; Jesus’ lineage is traced to David.  In fact the reason Jesus is in Bethlehem is because family members have been summoned there by Caesar to pay tax.  Jeremiah’s picture of Rachel weeping for her children is an apt portrait of what happened in Bethlehem.

Upon hearing that Herod has died this family returns to Israel.  In the south where Bethlehem is located Herod’s son Archelaus rules; he is so cruel that even the Romans, who had a high tolerance for brutality, removed him.  So Joseph and Mary decide to come back to Nazareth.  Matthew says a prophetic word is fulfilled; “He will be called a Nazaorean.”  What prophetic text Matthew has in mind here is widely debated.  I think that he has conflated two texts (which Matthew does in other places).  The word “Nazaorean” is the combination of two words.  The first is from Isaiah (11:1) speaking of the messiah as the branch arising out of  the stump of Jesse—the root of the word “branch” if the first word combined by Matthew. The second is also from Isaiah (4:3), he “will be called holy”—holy is the second word Matthew conflates into one.  Matthew feels free to link this with the sound of the name of the town of Nazareth.

We do not have time here to look in detail into what Matthew means by fulfilment of prophesy.  In broad stokes I would make this observation.  Matthew dares to see things as the actually are—the miseries of refugee status, the murderous actions of kings and powers—and still affirms that God is working even in the worst that humans can do to each other.  Nothing can defeat God’s promise of Immanuel—“God-with-us”.  Jesus will one day be overrun by this murderous intent—not in Bethlehem but in Jerusalem; somehow this is all for our salvation—that is what Matthew wants to say to his hearers.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.