this morning’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, Joseph is warned of Herod’s wrath in a dream and flees, with his young family, to Egypt. Now, there is no doubt that Egypt has played a significant part throughout Biblical history. It was in Egypt that the Israelites were enslaved and from Egypt that God called them to embark on the great Exodus, the pivotal moment in Jewish history. It was also in Egypt that Moses, whom God would use to deliver the nation Israel from Pharaoh’s rule, was as a babe himself rescued from the river Nile. The significance for Matthew, therefore, can’t be minimized.
Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, wants his audience to understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. As he builds the story of Jesus’ early days, Matthew expends great effort to make and remake the connection between Hebrew scripture and the new covenant reality. Christ is the Messiah – the One whom prophets of old predicted would come and rescue the people Israel. Jesus Christ is the Savior. Christ is “Emmanuel” “God with us”, the Son of David, the one that predicted in Isaiah and described as “Wonderful, Counselor, the Prince of Peace.” Matthew makes all these connections.
Herod, on the other hand, was what many of us might call a traitor. He was Jewish by birth yet through extortion and oppression managed to profit, and rather nicely, at the expense of his fellow countrymen. He had managed to weasel a powerful position out of the Roman government. Of course, in reality he was but a puppet king. He did the dirty bidding of the Romans. He was held in low esteem by his countrymen, hardly, a Jew at all, just a Roman dupe selling out his people to feather his own nest. Frankly, Herod had a pretty good deal going.
So, it is no wonder that Herod took the news of a Jewish king born in a backwater corner of the kingdom as less than good news. And his reaction is swift and nasty. When the three wise men did not return with the location of the birth of Jesus, Herod called for a great holocaust. He demanded the life of every baby boy under the age of two born to mothers in and around Bethlehem. In a dream, we are told; Joseph is led to flee with his family to Egypt and not to return until Herod is dead and gone. All this happens, as Matthew interprets it, to fulfill the prophecies of old and to ensure that those hearing the story will understand that Jesus is the one who is to come, their Messiah, the savior of the nation Israel.
When we hear the Christmas story we are usually so intrigued with the bliss of a baby, a mother, a father, shepherds, kings, angels all the elements of Christmas that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, that we miss the not so pleasant parts of the tale. We miss the pain of all those other mothers and fathers whose children were ripped from their arms and killed to protect the power and greed of an evil Herod. It isn’t a nice piece of the story. It isn’t really what we want to hear in this season. In order to protect one infant, many died. One day this rescued child will, by his life, be life to untold numbers of men, women and children.
Out of all that pain, something good happened, but the cost is immense. Though we don’t want to admit it Christmas, our Christmases can be somewhat bittersweet and costly too. Christmas isn’t always gingerbread and twinkling lights, at least not for every one, and for most of us, not all the time. Christmas has the power to bring out the best in us but it also brings out some of the worst in us. Memories we push down all year long come tumbling out like overstuffed presents when the box cover is lifted. All those family disagreements we try to ignore or deny the rest of the year seem to have a life of their own during the holiday season. We remember those we love and have lost, those memories roar back with a vengeance no matter how long that person has been gone from us. Arguments that broke the family into pieces, in years past, well, they come back to haunt us. The divorces that took place many years ago have ways of seeming so fresh and newly painful as though we were just now experiencing them. We all feel like Christmas should be a vision of sugar plums and sweet dreams, family gatherings and warm, good wishes and those things do happen, but not to everyone and, for most of us, not necessarily every year.
Every one of us, every individual, every family has memories that are triggered by Christmas good wishes. They are our memories that run like tapes in our heads to the strains of “Silent Night” reminding us of what this Christmas is and what it’s not. Human beings live real lives and sometimes life is just plain painful. Just because everything around us tells us that we should be experiencing great joy doesn’t mean that we can put our very real lives on hold and make that joy happen. Joy is usually more illusive than that and a true gift when we experience it. The Christmas story is a story of joy but it is also a story of sorrow. It does hold expectation for those who hear it and live it but there is a measure of anxiety. Hope and despair mingle indiscriminately and much like our stories, there is a bit of everything that defines us as human. Christ’s story is very human too.
Whether we like it or not, this morning’s story of flight and fear, of the death of innocent babies is part of Christmas too. Just like our stories – a bit of pain and loss, life and death, gains and pains, strained family relationships and a desire for healing, those who are with us and those who have left us, all our difficulties with past relationships and events, it all shoulders its way into our present circumstances — this is a story that is our story too. Mary and Joseph fleeing, Herod ordering the baby boys under two killed, the mothers and fathers of those children wondering how and why this huge calamity had struck them, all this is part of the story we remember today and hopefully throughout the year, because there is a word of hope here that we can not afford to lose. Christ came into this word to experience, share and ultimately shoulder our pain. That is the Christmas story – the life of one individual who lifted the pain of human existence up with him on a cross and assumed the brokenness in his own body out of love for God’s creation, out of love for us. We are human as Christ was human and it is into this mix of joy and sorrow that Christ comes as one of us to share our need, our hope, our fear, our desire, and our broken-ness. Christ came to experience it all, just as we experience it all and to offer us hope that even in the midst of our need, God is present, real, and available to us.
If Christmas were just a Hallmark card, all sweetness and light, we wouldn’t need the fulfillment of God in the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. We wouldn’t need a Savior. Because Christmas and all the life it encompasses is not just merry or misery but some of both, we do need Christ the Savior to deliver us from ourselves to the best part of who we are called to be. If that were not so, if we couldn’t believe in our need for Christ the Savior, then life would be without meaning or message. Christ is our good news, the good news that though we may not always be happy in this world we can always find joy. Christ came to us to give us abundant life with all the wonderful, complex mix of relationships and feelings that make life worth living. Christ is the ultimate gift – a gift for every season, for every circumstance, for every one of us. Amen.