4 January 2008/Christmas 2 * Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23/Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Welcoming The Light
We have shifted for a short time into the Gospel landscape of Matthew. It is a story of angelic messages delivered in dreams. It is a story without shepherds, without a manger, with no mention of other animals. It is a story that features three strangers, undocumented aliens from Persia or thereabouts – Magi, whatever such a word might conjure in our imaginations: astronomers, magicians, inquirers, maybe even the first century equivalent of scientists! They come following and seeking The Light, the Word, the logos, and they say it, “the Christ.”
And it is a story of a gathering darkness and danger featuring the irritability and selfishness of all human tyrants in the person of Herod. For Israel, Herod and his family represent the failures of the last attempt to convert gentiles into the world of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is easy to understand that the Jewish people from the time of Herod forward cease all attempts at proselytizing and conversion!
Those familiar with the Biblical narrative will see in Herod all the negative attributes of that earlier tyrant, Pharaoh, and the tell-tale signs of all future tyrants with names like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin, Hussein, Mugabe – the list is sadly endless. They will also see the child, Jesus, connected to three formative events in the history of Israel – born in Bethlehem, home to the shepherd King David; time in Egypt, the place from which the Exodus/Passover event occurred; and a reference to the Babylonian Exile.
The last, alas, obscured by the lectionary’s curious editorial choice to omit verses 16-18:
16 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18‘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.’
To edit out these verses renders the story meaningless. Rachel, of course, was one of Jacob’s wives, believed to be buried in Bethlehem; and Ramah was the place of mourning for the Exile. It seems the lectionary is a bit squeamish about presenting the genocidal slaughter of so many innocent children in the Christmas Season.
Lest we draw any wrong conclusions, Matthew offers a subtle distinction easily overlooked by the casual reader. Instead of suggesting that God in any way caused this unmitigated evil to occur, Matthew has changed his usual language to introduce Old Testament prophecy, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…,” to “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet….” A subtle change, but a change nonetheless. As Thomas Long observes in his commentary Matthew (Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville: 1997), this change suggests that “The message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction written into the fabric of history, and that not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.” p.22
Rather than look for a silver lining, we are to join with Rachel, who represents all mothers everywhere who lose their children to such senseless tryanny, and weep over this tragic loss of life, and that the Son of God, the Light and Life of the world, is sent into exile. The terrible rage of Herod proves his helplessness, and the helplessness of all tyrants like Herod past, present and future. The child survives, returns, and lives on to this day!
We also learn something about the strategy of the Light in its unending battle to transform all darkness into Light. The light cannot be destroyed, but it can be forced to withdraw; it can be hidden; worse still it can be shut out. Surrounded as we are by great and little Herods in our day, it is easy to overlook that we must also contend with the Herod who resides in our own souls. We are all too capable of shutting out the Light that lives inside of us, and refuse to see the Light that lives inside others – all others. So often the Light remains hidden, and we too busy to stop, look and listen for its presence in our midst.
The growing number of us who come to experience Centering Prayer each Thursday evening are beginning to learn about the barriers we construct that shut us off from the God within, from others, and from our true selves. Together we sit in silence to let go of the busyness of our lives and the barriers we believe necessary to carry on such busyness, and listen quietly for the presence of the Light, the Word – the Word which becomes flesh to dwell among us.
Paul describes it in the words, “Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2: 20) Meister Eckhardt calls it, “the birth of the Son in the castle of our soul.” The Quakers call it “The Light Within.” All of them agree that this light appears “by grace.” The human soul, as it were, is its mother; the father is the eternal Spirit. At Christmas we are to celebrate this coming of the Light, this virgin birth of Christianity within each one of us.
The Holy Innocents, the victims of Herod’s holocaust, died for the Light, the Christ, though they did not know it. Their parents, like Rachel, mourned the death of these first martyrs of our faith. “The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak for themselves fit witnesses to himself,” wrote Quodvultdeus, Bishop of Carthage in the fifth century.
“See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the Saviour already working salvation. But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed, and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it. How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.” Quodvultdeus, Sermo 2 de Symbolo. Text: PL 40, col 655, as found in For All The Saints (Anglican Books, Toronto: 1997) p. 400.
This Second Sunday of Christmas means to ask us, Will we allow the birth of this Son in the castle of our souls? Will be let down a draw bridge across whatever moats we construct to keep Him at some distance from us? Can we join with those Holy Innocents in whatever way possible to bear witness against the Herods of our own time and place? How might we console Rachel to know that her children and all innocent victims of tyranny in fact live on in, with and through Christ throughout all generations?
Paul prays that the “eyes of your heart” be enlightened so that you may “know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Ephesians 1:18-19
May Paul’s prayer and the lives of all those innocent children come alive in us this day! Amen.