Part of the Sunday Retold series – for the first Sunday of the Christmas Season.The readings many churches will be following this week are Matthew 2:13-23 and Isaiah 63:7-9
Today, 28th December, is also the day the church remembers those who suffer in the Matthew story – the children who are killed at Herod’s order, and all those who weep for them.
It is one of the hardest stories to read in the gospels – that of Herod’s terrible plan to put to death all the tiny boys in Bethlehem. It calls to mind Pharaoh’s instructions that all the newborn boys should be killed, and that calling to mind is no accident (Exodus 1). Matthew’s account is full of reference to the earlier story. The family run to Egypt, across the wilderness, later to retrace the journey, like a second Moses. All these elements of Israel’s suffering and saving are bound up in the life of this fragile child. More than that – the trials and difficulties of all people are bound up in this one life.
Once again, we see that our saccharine, shiny, perfect hopes for Christmas are very wide of the dark realities of the original tale. Our nice Christmas card illustrations and nativity plays lack the shadows that we see in older , and contemporary, works of art.
This painting is quite unsettling, for all its gold and beauty. It’s centre is the gaze – what emotions does that gaze convey?- between the child and the old man bowed before him. The Magi came to bring gifts, and we rightly honour them for that, but, but…. They are framed by a military helmet and spears visible in silhouette in the background, and the face staring out at us from the foreground. This visit of the Magi brings in its wake betrayal and death.. The involvement of Herod was a catastrophe for Bethlehem.
The involvement of the powerful continues to be a catastrophe for so many caught up in conflict. Peace on Earth seems slow in coming. We have been able to watch heartbreaking phone footage from inside Aleppo as it fell, we have see the trauma of children displaced, we have heard the weeping of mothers for whom no comfort is possible. In the face of such pain, what can we do?
There are clues to answers, but it is not easy, or glib, or superficial. Firstly, I think we can see a glimmer in the fact that these birth narratives of Jesus do not pretend that all is well, that all became well with this birth. Jesus and his family went through the trauma of becoming displaced, their lives were under threat. They had a time in Egypt, and found there a place of refuge. Places of refuge are possible.
The distress of those who remained is not glossed over. Their pain is very real.
Any account of Christmas joy which makes us feel that our pain, our losses, our difficult circumstances are out of place in the season is a mistaken, damaging untruth.
There are lessons here, too, about the betrayal of the weak by the strong. The magi were not so wise about power, when they went to the palace. Asking the powerful for help did not go well. It did not go well for the people of Bethlehem, or the soldiers who were sent to do that terrible work. Herod remains above this cowardly deed. Those who suffered for it, either at the hand of the soldiers, or because their hands are soldiers hands, were not.
We can, in democracies, hold our leaders to account, not allowing them to remain distant from consequences, and we absolutely must do so, but we should not be surprised when those who seek worldly power act in ways which are worldly and powerful, when they look to their own interests ahead of those of their people. In those circumstances, we must join in with the cry of the mothers against those who abuse power. The voice of the mothers is the one we hear in Matthew. These are the cries that God hears (Exodus 3:7). Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword will pierce her own heart, will have their time for fulfillment (Luke 2:33-35)
We can know, too that this great promise of God with us is no empty phrase. That God should take such risks to share the darkness of humanity is extraordinary. This is the heart of the Christmas story, the astonishing revelation. That Jesus came, emptied of power, stooped down to the level of the lowest, the most vulnerable. Endured the worst that humanity could dish out, suffered affliction with us, and transformed and redeemed it. For people of power did not kill him now, but they will, in time.
It is the testament of many who have undergone dark times that they have seen, sometimes years later, that God was with them. A God who walks in the dark with you, is very different from who sits distant on a throne. We are not, in truth, alone. That however low you can fall, “underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut 33:27).
The reading from Isaiah placed alongside this dark and terrible tale shows this, too:
And he became their Saviour.
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
There are unexpected sources of comfort and help. There is light, even in the darkest night.
We can remember too, how Job’s fortunes seem to have been restored – they were restored, like this – people came and offered him comfort, and offered him gold.(42:11).
There are many who are offering comfort and resources. We can look for ways of joining them.
When the darkness seems most dark, it can steel our determination to offer light, and hope, in the many small and not-so-small ways that we can.
ESCAPE TO EGYPT (Matthew 2:13-18)
Every day Herod asked “Well? Is there any message for me from Bethlehem?”
And every day his attendants bowed as they answered. “No, Your Majesty, there is no message.”
Herod’s plan to be rid of this rival king was failing – and so another thought, chilling and terrible, began to circle in his mind.
Back in Bethlehem, God spoke to Joseph. An angel came to him in a dream.
“Get up now, Joseph! This minute! Take the child and his mother and run for Egypt. Herod is out hunting for the child – he wants to kill him!”
And so, under cover of night, Mary and Joseph bundled their belongings together, and slipped away from the town, carrying the sleeping child. They started out on their journey through the wilderness to Egypt.
After they left Bethlehem, great sorrow overtook the town. Herod’s soldiers came and killed all the little boys under two years old. The mothers turned away from those who tried to comfort them, and wept bitterly for the loss of their children.
You may wish to use either or both of the pictures above as a prompt to meditation. Open your heart and your eyes before them, and ask – God, what are you drawing my attention to here? What do I see? How can I live more fully in love of God and my neighbour in the light of that seeing?
And some prayers to help us find words for ourselves, and others, when in such dark places, from Prayers and Verses
Lord, watch over refugees, their tired feet aching. Help them bear their heavy loads. May they ﬁnd a place of rest, may no fears awake them. May you always be their guide, and never forsake them
Lord God, Who saw the hunger and loneliness of Ruth and Naomi, and brought them to a place of plenty, and gave them a home, help us when we are lost and hungry; and help us to reach out a hand to those in need.
Dear God, We pray for the casualties of war: for the young and the old, for the parents and the children; for the birds and the animals, for the ﬁelds and the ﬂowers; for the earth and the water, for the sea and the sky. We pray for their healing.
We thank you, Lord God, that you hear the prayers of people who carry heavy burdens. Thank you that the prayers of the slaves in Egypt were answered. Help us to pray for those whose lives are hard.
Dear God, Give us the courage to overcome anger with love.
This is what God says:
“I myself will look for my people and take care of them in the same way as shepherds take care of their sheep.
“I will bring them back from all the places where they were scattered on that dark, disastrous day.
“I will lead them to the mountains and the streams of their own land, so they may make their home amid the green pastures.
“I shall be their God, their Good Shepherd;
they will be my people, my ﬂock.”
From Ezekiel 34
Dear God, We have arrived at this, our new home, feeling as lost as windblown seeds that are dropped upon the earth. Let us put down roots here where we have landed, and let our lives unfold in your love and light.
When we find ourselves somewhere strange, and new,
help us to pray for the place, and the people,
help us to work for their good
O God, Settle disputes among the nations, among the great powers near and far.
FROM MICAH 4:3
Dear God, Take care of those who live in war zones: Afraid of noise, afraid of silence; Afraid for themselves, Afraid for others; Afraid to stay, afraid to go; Afraid of living, afraid of dying. Give them peace in their hearts, in their homes and in their land.
Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death?
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, union; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.
ATTRIBUTED TO ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1181–1226)
Readers in Suffolk may have a particular interest in this organisation, which is well worth supporting for all.
Suffolk Refugee Support
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