Grace Presbyterian Church
January 1, 2017, Christmas 2A
The Refugee Jesus
I wish I could simply preach a simple, carefree, Christmas-y sermon today. I wish I could just ignore this story and keep it cheerful. But this story resists easy cheeriness, and in the world and time in which we live, to ignore this scripture and the way it warns us would be an act of pastoral abdication on my part.
It is one of the most horrifying stories in all of scripture, and possibly the most horrifying in the New Testament, possibly aside from the Crucifixion. The “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it’s called. A frightened and angry tyrant, lashing out in his fear and embarrassment, ordering the death of untold numbers of infants and toddlers – all those age two or under in the town of Bethlehem – out of a raging desire to protect his own title and power. Surely we could never imagine such a thing, or the kind of figure who would commit such an atrocity.
This story slashes across Matthew’s nativity account like the sharp blade of a sword wielded by one of Herod’s men. It all seems fairly innocent at first, if a bit convoluted, as Joseph has to be persuaded in a dream to take his unexpectedly pregnant wife, bearing the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. The appearance of the Magi from the east, how much later we’re not really sure, adds both a curiosity and an element of danger to the event; the so-called “wise men” blunder into Judea asking the sitting king for the whereabouts of the new king, and have to be warned in another of those provident dreams to go home by a different route and not play into Herod’s hands by leading him to the child. (More about the Magi Friday night, when we observe Epiphany and share a meal together to mark the end of the Advent/Christmas orbit.)
At any rate, it would be so tempting to wrap up the story at verse 15, with the Magi following their alternate route and Joseph and Mary left wondering what to do with frankincense and myrrh on the way to Egypt. (the gold, on the other hand, you figure they might have an idea what to do with). Everyone’s safe, Matthew gets to make another of his “fulfillment” references by citing Hosea 11:1 as another prophetic box that Jesus checks off, and we all go home happy.
Herod wasn’t happy, though. And Herod didn’t know when he was beaten.
If the story ever appears in most Christmas celebrations (particularly when the lectionary doesn’t include it as it does this year), it happens only if the “Coventry carol” is sung. That carol dates from no later than 1534, as part of a “mystery play” performed in that city in England, and probably much earlier. This is the one that begins “lullay, lulla, thou little tiny child” which you might have heard before, but the whole carol lays out the horrible story, particularly in the second, third, and fourth stanzas:
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
Bye, bye, lully lullay?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All the young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
It is, if we’re paying attention, profoundly hard to read this passage without wanting to cry, or to cry out. Even as we can give thanks that the child Jesus was delivered it’s hard not to cry out with Rachel, whose lament from Jeremiah Matthew invokes here. Why, God? Why did these children have to die?
I made two mistakes this week that prevent me from crying out so. First, on Tuesday I saw a PBS program, titled Exodus, on the travails and hardships faced by refugees from war, economic depravation, and other world calamities – from Syria, yes, but also from numerous other conflicts in the Middle East and on the African continent, wars and tyrannies and persecutions we know nothing about in this country. Then on Friday I made the mistake of going to the Harn Museum, for the next-to-last day of its photography exhibit called “Aftermath: The Fallout of War – America and the Middle East,” which included among other things numerous photographs, again from war zones both famous and forgotten, images that make clear why so many are forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees. Then I was of course reminded of the recent re-conquest of the Syrian city of Aleppo, in which civilians who had managed to survive that war thus far were shot on the spot.
And so, even in the face of this story, I find my voice choking, unable or unwilling to cry out at the injustice of this slaughter recorded by Matthew, if only because if I do cry out “Why do these children have to die?” I am entirely afraid that God’s answer might just be “I was just going to ask you the same question.”
The table before us on this day, when the carols and praises are caused to stick in our throats and wilt in our hearts, reminds us that Jesus calls all of us to come; all of us, including Jesus’ fellow refugees, from Aleppo or South Sudan or Guatemala or anywhere from which any of God’s children flee death or despair or tyranny or abuse or death or death or death, calling them, and us, to life, and life together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#113 Angels We Have Heard on High
#147 The First Nowell
#154 Jesus Entered Egypt
#133 O Come, All Ye Faithful
"Omran, Angels are Here!", Judith Mehr, 2016
Painting in response to the virally circulated photo of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, after a bombardment in August 2016 that killed, among others, his ten-year-old brother. One can barely resist wondering where the angels were for the other children in Bethlehem, after Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had gone...