Where else but the second Sunday after Christmas can we hear about the baby Jesus, his emergency exit to Egypt, the wise men who foiled the insecure King Herod and…the senseless genocide of children. It’s a part of the narrative the bible doesn’t leave out, a part we’re left to consider. It’s not a pleasant thing imagining King Herod butchering all of the little boys, ages two and under. And the bible doesn’t offer any answers. Quite frankly any answer would be wholly inadequate. What kind of world do we live in where this has to be part of the Christmas story? Where’s the hope in that? Answer: THIS is the world that needs saving. Even if we’d rather turn the page and look away.
Do you remember the television series FRIENDS? There’s an episode where Phoebe arrives home to find everyone crying around the television set, watching “Old Yeller.” We learn that Phoebe’s mother decided to leave out the hard parts by turning off the television set before the dog is put down and cheerily saying “The End.”
Maybe you feel a little like Phoebe. Maybe you’d like to skip ahead a head to a happier chapter in humanity’s story. That’s actually a pretty reasonable idea. But here’s the thing. If we spend our lives limited to the middle keys of life’s piano, we’ll avoid the low notes and sacrifice the high notes. And that is less than the kind of music God dreams for us.
So what can we learn from this story? Can we find the hope, the comfort and the joy of Christmas here? Answer: Yes, but only if we don’t turn away. Perhaps the first need-to-ask question is this. How can we celebrate Joseph and Mary removing baby Jesus to Egypt when that means considering the babies who were not so fortunate? While that may be our first thought, we can celebrate that the holy family found hospitality across a border. Met with welcome and shelter, we’re led to another learning.
Anytime Jesus is on the scene, have you noticed that the usual categories of life get scrambled. In this story the Promised Land (Israel) is now the place of danger and the place of slavery and danger (Egypt) becomes the place of welcome. What then constitutes our safety or our refuge? Does geography make us safe or is it something larger and deeper?
And why is Matthew quoting Jeremiah? “Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled, because they are no more.” Can we sit with her anguish? With her children dead or lost, it was natural for Rachel to weep. The bible is honest about the misery of the human condition but it never gives in to it! When we connect the dots of the bible narrative we see that even inconsolable losses will be consoled. Not in this life, perhaps, for we carry some losses to the grave. By quoting Jeremiah, Matthew is telling us that the Messiah came to bring comfort and joy EVEN to the Rachel’s of the world.
And what of Jesus? Jesus and his family escape only temporarily, for his time had not yet come. We know how the story ends and that there is a cross in his future. Many years from now he will not run from his own suffering, and he will be with us in ours. Jesus is saved from this massacre so that he can go again to the place of danger, the cross, for our sake.
Bringing this story forward to present tense 2014, what do we do with all the pain and suffering found in our world? Cancer? Downed jetliners? War?
First, we weep. But then there is a communal call for all of us to be a Rachel in the world, those people who stand watch, naming the need wherever it occurs. Rachel’s people are clear that in the midst of deep suffering, witness and accompaniment are a primary goal. In other words, we go simply to be with them and to dry their tears as best we can. In our culture we do that with food. We bring them a hot dish or a plate of cookies and we hold precious hope that tomorrow will be brighter.
Truth is it’s already brighter. Herod is dead. Jesus is alive. All the evil in the world will lose its power. Jesus never will.