Do you have a crèche or Christmas crib at home? We certainly have one here at Christ Church Cathedral, and the kings haven’t even arrived at the manger yet. In my house, they are across the room. Some families move them a little closer to Baby Jesus every day… and this morning, the Kings are making their way along the window ledges over there on your right.
Yet this morning’s reading from Matthew (2:13-23) looks ahead to the implications—to everything the birth of Jesus means, and to who he is. In our story today, the Kings (or the wise people, Magi) have come and gone, not returning to Herod as he had bid them to do, and Herod is “about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
This morning switches the channel: from a Hallmark Christmas movie to a rerun of “the Empire strikes back”
Nearly 20 years ago, when the mainstream Christian media were clamoring to “put God back into Christmas,” Joy Carol Wallis wrote an influential essay called “Putting Herod Back into Christmas”, https://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas. And if you are in the habit of going to church the Sunday after Christmas you might have heard sermons before about this difficult and definitely uncheerful Gospel.
Earlier, almost a century ago now, American playwright Thornton Wilder wrote a number of playlets—“three plays for three persons” and in one of them, “The Flight into Egypt” the chief speaking part is that of a donkey named Hepzibah who is carrying Mary and Jesus to Egypt. As she describes herself, “back in the yard, I’m the leader of a group. Among the girls. Very religious discussions, I can assure, you. Very helpful….
“I always say to the girls: Girls, even in faith we are supposed to use our reason. No one is intended to swallow hook, line, and sinker, as the saying is. Now, take those children that Herod is killing. Why were they born, since they must die so soon? Can anyone answer that? Why is the little boy in your arms being saved while the others must perish?”
She has stopped while she says this. Mary and Joseph urge her to keep moving. There are sounds of iron, representing Herod and his mercenaries, clanking in the distance. The sounds grow nearer.
Yes. The sounds grow nearer. Aren’t children in jails and detention camps even now, including right next door? Latinas and Latinos? (Yes.) Uighers? (Yes.) Don’t we all know first hand what it’s like to be paralyzed, stopped in our tracks in the face of so much Bad Stuff? What preachers used to call the Enemy? Is Australia still burning? (Yes.) Was there another mass shooting somewhere? (yes), a stabbing? (yes), another awful truck bomb (yes)? We are numb. The Saudi leaders who organized the murder of journalist Jamal Koshogghi seem to be going free while their subordinates suffer the consequences. I speak of that killing in particular because we can trace its ancestry back and forth, through Herod and beyond, to every despot who has found it useful to employ fear and the exhibition of sheer power over the lives of the powerless, and by that means exacting, if not obedience, silence and submission. There is no backtalk in such a regime, is there? The only escape is to escape.
When we celebrated our patronal feast last month, the Feast of Christ the King, we shifted from the traditional Roast Beef Dinner to a parish pot-luck feast, and invited participants to speak about the significance of the dishes they chose to bring—dishes from their country of origin, or from a country or tradition that is personally meaningful. It was a delight as well as a surprise to discover that most of the members of this multi-part parish are not from old Canadian families—some are newcomers, and many claim strong ties to other places. Border Crossers, as one of my friends calls us. Some of us have come in what you might call the natural course of things—and some of us, or our parents, have escaped.
My aunt and uncle and five cousins all escaped from East Germany and came to us in Pennsylvania. My dad could not sponsor seven people. He sponsored his sister and her husband, and the local Lutheran church sponsored the five children. I didn’t have new school clothes that year. Instead, my cousin Crystal and I had lovely dresses from the refugee barrel—and our town was so small that I knew exactly whose dresses those had been before they were ours.
Bethlehem was a small town, too, when Jesus was born there. I saw one estimate of its population at 300. Whether Herod actually killed all the two year olds is open to question. We know, historically, that he killed several of his own sons and one of his wives out of fear that they would usurp power. So at least in that sense the Gospel is historically accurate.
In Wilder’s playlet, Hepzibah continues: “Of course your child is dearer to you than others, but theologically speaking, there’s no possible reason why you should escape safely into Egypt while the others should be put to the sword, as the Authorized Version has it. When the Messiah comes these things will be made clear, but until then I intend to exercise my reasoning faculty…”
Mary interrupts her. “Hepzibah, don’t you remember me? Don’t you remember how you fell on your knees in the stable? Don’t you remember my child?”
Then, Hepzibah comes to her senses. “What, what? Of course!… Why didn’t I recognize you before? [She starts to hurry along.] I didn’t know I could run like this; it’s a pleasure. Lord, what a donkey I was to be arguing about reason while my Lord was in danger…”
This is the point in spirituality that some call “moving from the head to the heart.” Our hearts are ready to understand what our minds cannot entirely grasp. The question before us, here—today and every day—is
Whom do we serve?
If by our gestures and our attention we choose to serve the powers of this world… gazing with horror and dread at our televisions and the news feed, at the terrors of climate change and the insatiable power lust of leaders who thrive on fear… we will not simply FEEL lost, we will BE lost.
Oh it’s all too easy to attend to this daily drama. But, heaven help us, we already know this script by heart.
And just like Hepzibah, we are thinking members of the group. So it feels normal to stop in our tracks, honoring our real questions about what this all means.
Yet if we are baptized Christians we are carrying in ourselves not only the crucified Christ who suffered all the pain of this world… but the new-born and imperishable Christ—the new life, a life that will need resilience in the face of worldly powers. We might trudge ahead, obedient if sometimes unsure. We might stop and question. Or, godwilling, have thrilling moments of recognition. It’s important to understand that our escaping is not a retreat. It is simply the first in what will be a series of actions. We need perseverance as we move away from danger, perseverance that will give that God-self room to grow, and agency to act. With God’s help we can trust that, as the collect for today expresses it, the light we carry will shine forth in our lives.
So we pray a blessing on our journey together, for this freedom our souls long for and which we yearn to share with other. We give thanks for God’s protection! And we thank God for our church family and our other families, too—our birth families and the ones we have chosen. Amen.
Preached on the Sunday after Christmas 2019 (December 29) at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal.
Scriptures: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, and Matthew 2:13-23