One of my favourite aspects of the narrative of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is how, at each turn, we are shown God’s commitment to those who hold neither status or power. The circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy is outside what genteel society would approve of, and Jesus’ birth happens amidst the livestock. The family that raises Jesus is neither from Jerusalem nor from a priestly family: they are Galileans, from the high country of Nazareth, the household of a builder. The angels of Luke’s account proclaim the Messiah’s birth not to well-connected, well-respected townsfolk or landholders, but to shepherds – who fit somewhere between hired hand and distrusted drifter in their society’s strata. And today, in Matthew’s account, the first people with any status who see Jesus, are not even Jewish – they are visitors from another land and another spiritual tradition.
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These choices in how the story is told make clear that the unfolding story of the Word made Flesh, is in no way removed from the experiences of everyday people. The adult Jesus who tells us whatever we do unto those considered “least” by society, is done directly unto the Divine, reiterates God’s identification with the poor and humble. God’s emphatic concern for the life experience of the underclass and/or marginalized cannot be overstated, and is for me a cherished aspect as we draw near to the Christ child.
Today I feel drawn to go even one step further, though, to remove any sentimentality from what it is to live life on the margins. In order to help us understand the danger in the nativity story, our gospel reading today did not end at the usual place, the presentation of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today we hear what happened next for the Magi, and what happened next for the Holy Family.
What happened next for the Magi, was “12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.”
What happened next for Joseph and Mary and their child was “13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Which they did, staying there until it was safe to settle up north in Nazareth.
What happened next for the Magi and the family of Jesus and all the households of Bethlehem, was THREAT: “16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.” The specific, targeted threat to the infant Jesus is clear; and this particular Herod – “Herod the Great” – was notorious for eliminating anyone who might threaten his power, perhaps even a caravan of visiting astrologers. The King who killed three of his sons, one wife and much of her family when he feared a challenge to his power, was not a man to be trifled with.
History remembers Herod the Great as a brilliant military leader and a forward-thinking builder, but our faith story peels back this veneer of greatness to show the terrible things that power will do when it is threatened and afraid. And, for the Jewish audience who first heard this story, Herod’s bloody-mindedness would sound familiar. His massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the escape of Jesus and his family aligns easily with the account of the Egyptian Pharaoh, afraid of his population being overtaken by the Hebrew underclass, ordering that all Hebrew boy babies be killed (Exodus 1: 22) with baby Moses making a fortuitous escape. Yes, the historicity of both events is subject to question, but the willingness of rulers throughout history to terrorize the underclass and the “outsiders” is beyond doubt. Tragically, this is a story that is truly, bloodily repeated over and over again.
When Joseph is warned by a holy messenger to get his family TO Egypt – an interesting detail, given that the Hebrew people had needed to escape FROM Egypt at the time of the Exodus – it is clear God is found in this story, not in the Temple or the Palace, but in the lives of those oppressed, demeaned and threatened by the powers-that-be. And while we rejoice at the deliverance of THIS family from Herod’s murderous campaign, we lament the number of lives lost throughout history when the Herods of the world take aim at those least able to defend themselves.
The fingerprints of Herod, unfortunately, continue to be imprinted on situation after situation:
- We see Herod at work, whenever reactionary backlash reverses important human rights gains.
- We see Herod at work, as wealth-motivated agendas push the needs of the planet into the background.
- We see Herod at work, in the long-lasting damage done by the Residential Schools, a situation in which the Church fully shares in the shame.
- We see Herod at work, in any situation where life is made intentionally more difficult for people living with challenges: when things are made harder for people living with disabilities, for people not meeting their basic needs while stuck in minimum wage jobs, for people labelled as “them” rather than “us”, whose access to programs or services is limited by that label.
- We see Herod at work, in the number of people and populations displaced in our world. It was such a privilege today, to have our gospel lesson read for us by Nadia. As refugees expelled from their homeland due to religious persecution Nadia, her husband Imran, and their two teenage children, have direct experience of the ways of Herod – and to hear the gospel in her voice, brings it to a whole new level. We continue and work and pray to bring this family of four to the Bow Valley, hoping that the processes can happen fast enough for this to happen in 2022.
As we stand at the beginning of this new year, today’s gospel reading in all its fullness, challenges us to a broad view of the world around us, a view that does not shy away from the violence. The gospel challenges us to keep reading to part where the Magi must return home by a different way, to the part where the holy family escapes to Egypt, rather than stopping at the happier place of gold, frankincense and myrrh….and it challenges us, in our time and place, to engage all that is going on around us, not just the numbers and rules of COVID. The story of Christ and Christmas, Advent and Epiphany has many lovely, sentimental aspects which bring us “comfort and joy” but this narrative also opens us to “the hopes and fears of all the years” as we engage the dangers of these first days of Jesus. In this coming year, as we together re-engage social problems and needs that we’ve been somewhat away from, may we learn and question and seek tangible, meaningful actions of advocacy and justice and inclusion. May we stand where Jesus stands when the challenged and the impoverished and the marginalized are targeted again and again. Whether we consider ourselves “insider” or “outsider” or a bit of both, may we be shaped and directed by a God who is found in the hard places. In Christ we pray, Amen.
Clendenin, Daniel. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20101220JJ.shtml
Croteau, David. https://lifewayresearch.com/2015/12/17/christmas-urban-legends-shepherds-as-outcasts/
Davis, D. Mark https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2018/12/
Jarus, Owen. https://www.livescience.com/64962-king-herod.html
Longenecker, Dwight. https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/we-three-kings-who-were-the-magi.html
Willis, Amy Merrill. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21/commentary-on-exodus-18-22-21-10-2
© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.