There’s something about this time of year that makes us want to hold on to Christmas just a little bit longer. At exactly the stroke of midnight on December 26th, all the radio stations that had been playing Christmas carols non-stop since November suddenly go back to their regular programming. The decorations come down. The glittering lights disappear, and it feels like the magic just up and disappears.
But in the church, we keep it up just a little while longer. We celebrate Christmas as a whole twelve-day thing, continuing our carols and the joy and the hope of the season. We linger just a little bit longer at the manger. We hope for just a little more time with the innocence and wonder of the Christ child. So this reading from Matthew is quite an unwelcome contrast, I suspect.
Here, in this season of joy and hope, we get a story of danger and death. The carols fade into discordant tones of the Holy Family fleeing as refugees to Egypt. Matthew, the gospel writer, doesn’t let us sit in the wonder of the magi for very long before he reminds us that the savior won’t get to sleep in heavenly peace for long.
So most years, we skip this story. It gets bypassed in favor of cosmic passages from John about the Word made flesh. We replace it with our Lessons and Carols service. We want this season to be full of light and joy, and this story is just a wet blanket on our happy season. And we’ve done such a regular job of skipping this story that many Christians don’t even know this event happened in Jesus’ life. But this is an important story. It’s important because it reminds us that Jesus was living in the real world, with all the complexity that goes with that.
And that complexity goes right to the top. King Herod, who is the reason we have this tragic story to begin with, is often remembered as a power-hungry madman who murdered members of his own family to keep them from taking his throne. But Herod wasn’t actually a simple one-dimensional madman. He was called “Herod the Great” for a reason. He was the one responsible for putting Judea on the world map. He was the one who built the dazzling port of Caesarea, boosting trade and making a lot of important people rich. He was the one who decked out the Temple to such a magnificent degree that Jesus’ own disciples would comment in amazement at it thirty years later. His massive building projects brought employment to untold masses of people. For most Judeans, Herod really deserved the title “the Great.”
So with this horrifying story of Herod ordering the deaths of the boys of Bethlehem, you would think that would draw outrage from all corners of society. But it didn’t. Why mess up a good thing, what with all the jobs, with secure borders, with strong international relations, with God being honored with such public displays of piety? A few dozen boys killed in Bethlehem was tragic, and I’m sure they shook their heads, but surely Herod, great as he was, had a good reason for it. If it happened.
And into this complex mess, Jesus had narrowly missed being Herod’s victim. On Christmas Eve I talked about the messiness of Jesus entering into the world, how it’s important that we remember that messiness. Well, this is part of that mess. It’s not just the dirt that was on him from his lowly birth, or the reality that Mary likely had sweat-drenched hair from her exertions. It’s this, too. Jesus entered into our world with all of the mess of how bad things happen to people, how tragedy strikes, how powerful people get away with great evil.
It’s a reminder that the most difficult parts of human experience were experienced by our God. He fled his home as a refugee to seek protection in a faraway country. He would be scarred by the knowledge of loss like so many people who have endured violence taking their loved ones. He was displaced, moving to the faraway town of Nazareth where he and his family knew no one. And in it all, Jesus was a physical reminder that these broken places are not places where God will not go. The presence of tragedy, despite what many might think, was not the absence of God.
In fact, Matthew goes out of his way to demonstrate how God was uniquely present in all of it by citing scripture. The Holy Family’s flight to Egypt was watched over by God with the reminder that “out of Egypt I have called my son,” a reminder that God wouldn’t abandon Jesus to his fate. The voice in Ramah, the voice of Rachel weeping for her children, was the voice of God weeping over the children of Bethlehem—the ones Judea would ignore. And that “he would be called a Nazorean” was a reminder that in this new place, surrounded by strangers, Jesus would not be without God’s presence.
As much as the happy parts of this story—the miraculous birth, the lowly manger, the angelic messengers and the motley shepherds—as much as they are part of our understanding of the coming of Christ into the world, this story needs to be too. God didn’t choose to come as a powerful figure because the powerful look like Herod. Instead, God chose to come as a vulnerable infant, one threatened by the powers of this world, who experienced tragedy, adversity, loss, and trauma. God became human in this particular way as a reminder to us where to look when we are looking for God.
It’s with the people who are experiencing tragedy, loss, and worry. God is standing with the people who are getting the short end of the stick. God is consoling the ones fleeing violence as refugees, the ones whose neighborhoods are warzones, the ones whose homes are not safe, the ones who need a helping hand but are much easier to ignore. And God is calling on us to be there too, to save the vulnerable just like Joseph saved Jesus, to not ignore the children of Bethlehem, to name God’s abiding presence with the broken and beaten down of the world. God is calling us to see the mess of life—not ignore it, not gloss it over, but see it—and shine the light of hope in its darkness.
Because this—with all its mess, brokenness, tragedy, and darkness—is the Christmas story, too. Because God doesn’t walk away from tragedy. God dives right in. And God is still at work in it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.