It’s the fourth day of Christmas and we’re “celebrating” the massacre of innocents. The murder of children. Can you imagine?!? That’s about as un-Christmasy as you can get!
You might be wondering how we get to the massacre of children before we’ve had the visit of the Magi? Well, tradition has the Massacre of Innocents being commemorated on December 28. The Revised Common Lectionary, Year A has this passage for January 1. But because of how the calendar falls and Christmas fell, this Sunday, January 1 is Epiphany Sunday, and therefore, the Magi are the focus. I’ve opted to stay with the traditional fourth day of Christmas theme and talk about the Magi instead on Sunday. Besides, do we really want to start the year with death and destruction?!?
Maybe this jarring and horrifying story is more familiar than we want to think. 2016 has been a dark, difficult year, full of tragedy and death. So many shootings. So much terror, unrest, division, and tension! A short strong of cities brings to mind some of the violence, death, and destruction: Orlando, Dallas, Nice, Brussels, St. Paul, Aleppo, Berlin, Chicago, are just a few that come to me.
Here’s what the gospel writer Matthew has to say:
The Escape to Egypt
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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
The Massacre of the Infants
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet 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.”
The Return from Egypt
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” ~ Matthew 2:13-23
I put the Scripture passage in here because I want us to be fully aware how chillingly timely this passage is. The horrors we experience are not new. Matthew knew that his audience would recall Herod’s murder of children Pharaoh’s murder of Jewish children in Exodus . I think that’s Matthew’s point. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. The God we meet in Jesus is not exempt from the tension, fear, and violence of our world. Instead, God is in the midst of the tension, fear, and violence with us.
Do you think Joseph, Mary and Jesus were alone on their journey or do you think there were others fleeing with them?
Most likely there were other refugees with them. Being surrounded with other refugees reminds us that these people were forced to flee. How poignant that God in Christ truly identifies with everyone who has been driven from their homes by threat of terror, or displaced because of violence, or any who flee with hopes of a better future where they are going. The Syrian crisis certainly fits these circumstances.
Matthew tells us that God is not only with us, but God is also for us. God promises to bring us through the difficult times to the other side. We may not be unscathed, but we will still survive. Matthew structures this passage around prophecies, demonstrating that even the darkest portions of Jesus’ story are part of the larger narrative of God’s providence and protection. Nothing is beyond the bounds of God’s love and activity that everything is also redeemable and even used by God. Yes, we are part of that story too.
God is with us in the darkest of times. God accompanies us in every journey, when we’re fleeing in terror or because of violence, or just because. We might not know how to begin to comprehend the horrifying circumstances befalling ourselves or others, but we can put our hope in the One is with us and for us. Now. Always.