Friends of mine throw an annual New Year’s Eve bash at their house. It doubles as a birthday celebration for my friend’s father-in-law, so the spirit of the occasion is doubly festive. It often goes late into the night and food and drink are abundant. It is a very festive time.
One year, my friends’ son was old enough to stay up for the ball drop. As the midnight hour approached, the anticipation was growing. Finally, we all gathered around the television to watch Dick Clark begin the countdown: 10–9–8–7–6–5–4–3–2–1 Happy New Year! We raised our glasses and wished one another a good new year and then everyone went back to what they had been doing a couple of minutes before.
My friends’ son was perplexed. “That’s it?” he asked. “Yup, kiddo. That’s it.” Disappointed, he went straight to bed. The anticipated event didn’t quite live up to expectations. In the end, it was just a big glass ball moving slowly down a cable in Times Square. When you think about it, it’s really not that exciting.
But sometimes, the thing we’re waiting for is exciting in and of itself. Christmas can certainly be like that. Especially when you’re a kid and the days between the arrival of the JCPenney toy catalog and Christmas Day seem to take forever.And then comes the big day and it’s glorious! All manner of toys and treats and then a big Christmas dinner with all kinds of goodies and sweets. It’s a pretty good payoff. Not like that Times Square ball at all.
But then something happens. December 26 happens. And the regular world starts to creep back in. People have to go back to work so that the day can’t quite be spent lounging around in your pajamas the way the day before had. The Christmas music stops playing on the radio and they return to their regular programming. Oh, the chirons on the football games will still read “Happy Holidays” with a snowfall graphic, but there’s a sense that Christmas is over and that’s a huge letdown. Because the magic of Christmas Day seems like the anomaly, the blip. Regular life reappears.
Now, staving off this letdown is one of the many reasons that I insist that people recognize that Christmas is a twelve day holiday that runs from December 25 through January 5. But I know I’m fighting an uphill battle. Christmas isn’t really defined by the churches anymore; it’s defined by Macy’s and CVS, the latter of which will be stocking the shelves with Valentine’s Day candy any day now.
But the holiday letdown is real. And people feel it. Even when the holiday has lived up to expectations, the feelings of post-holiday depression are common. The goodwill that people experienced has quickly yielded to the usual routine. The détente that you had established with your Uncle Dave at the Christmas dinner table has returned to the usual intense argument over politics.
For all of our singing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and Joy to the World, and all the other Christmas carols of hope and longing, the world post-Christmas can seem remarkably … unchanged.
II. THE TEXT
Nowhere is this point made clearer than in the Biblical text itself. In Matthew’s account of the Nativity, sometime after Jesus is born, magi from the east come to visit and pay him homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (We’ll get to the magi next week.) They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who had asked them to report back once they’d found the child. And so they return to their own country by another route.
Joseph, too, is warned in a dream that Herod wants to kill the child Jesus, and so, he takes Mary and Jesus out of their home in Bethlehem and they escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous intent. Herod, upon learning that the magi have tricked him and returned without reporting in, unleashes his soldiers on Bethlehem where they slaughter every male child two years old and younger. The story concludes with Matthew quoting from the prophet Jeremiah:
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”
The Christmas moment—the birth of the baby Jesus and the adoration of the magi—has come to a sudden and tragic end with the murderous slaughter of the innocents under a brutal tyrant. The moment of peace, the “silent night” has gone back to the usual days of violence, oppression, injustice, and the suffering of the innocent. And quickly.
Far more devastating than the usual post-holiday letdown, the massacre of the innocents calls into question so much about the expectations we have.
III. WAIT A MINUTE—I THOUGHT GOD WAS COMING
You can be forgiven for wondering where God has gone in all this. All Advent we sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. All Advent we talked about his promised coming. We talked about the one coming to change the world. We lit the candles of love, hope, joy, and peace. And then, right here, following Christmas we see love replaced by hate, hope turned to despair, peace turned to violence, and joy turned into Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled.
Now, there is a temptation for us to gloss over this because we’ve read the end of the story. We skipped ahead to the 28th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and we know that everything has turned out okay. But there’s two words of caution I would raise about our inclination to do so.
First, our awareness that Jesus is ultimately resurrected from the dead does nothing to mitigate the suffering of the mothers of Bethlehem. I think it would be fair to say that if you had just beheld your child killed by a client king to the world’s most powerful empire, you would not be consoled if someone were to tell you that thirty years in the future, the messiah would be raised from the dead.
Second, even we who stand on this side of the Resurrection can hardly claim that everything is now just fine because Christ has been raised. The last 2,000 years has seen plenty of reenactments of the Massacre of the Innocents. Plenty of families have been driven to flee their homes for fear of persecution and violence. Plenty of mothers have wept over the loss of their children to the powers of violence and Empire in the post-Easter world, not just the post-Christmas one.
Indeed, yesterday’s Post has stories of 79 dead from an explosion in Somalia, a mounting humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria, as 500,000 people are displaced by a government assault, and a married father of two being killed the night after Christmas during a robbery as he picked up food to be delivered for his job. Right after Christmas, the innocent are slain and are driven to seek refuge away from their homes to avoid violence.
And so, we have to ask sincerely, when we encounter a story like this, either in scripture, in our world, or in our own lives: where has the God that we were waiting for gone?
IV. WHERE GOD HAS COME
There is a temptation to associate God with deeds of power and with the powerful themselves. Part of it comes from the fact that that’s how we talk about God: almighty God, a Mighty Fortress, King, Lord, Ruler of Heaven and Earth. So, much of the way we talk about God emphasizes God’s power and majesty that we have a hard time coming up with responses when God seems to be absent or asleep on the job. When terrible things like a massacre of innocents happens or people are driven from their homes, we are left wondering why such a powerful and mighty God could not have stopped such a thing.
But here’s the thing: God isn’t known through the power and might of emperors and kings. Oh, they would like you to believe that that was the case because it makes their authority appear more legitimate, but it’s not so. Emperors and kings will always seek their own power, not God’s. They will always seek their own interests, not God’s. Even the Emperor Constantine, the Roman Emperor who decriminalized Christianity, revered as a Saint in some parts of the church, insisted he had the authority to interfere in the life of the church, influenced doctrine, and when he died was declared a god by the Roman Senate.
In fact, finding godly and Christian rulers is so rare that we actually have to point it out when they live up to their Christian ideas, usually by affixing the epithet “Good” to their names. I can only think of two: Good King Josiah and Good King Wenceslas. I guess that goes to show you how rare it is to find a powerful person who actually embodies the presence of God.
No, human power is nothing like God’s power. It seeks to control us; God’s power seeks to liberate us. It demands adulation and praise; God’s power offers service and compassion. Human power seeks to terrorize us through fear—fear of the other, fear of loss, fear of change; God’s power seeks to comfort us through love. Human power demands fealty and tribute; God’s power offers grace.
But perhaps most importantly, human power seeks to acquire more power. Rarely was there ever a ruler who thought to him or herself, “You know, I think I have just the right amount of power. I don’t want any more.” Instead, human power seeks to acquire more power. It seeks to shut out anyone who would compete for power. It sends its troops into a village in Judea to slaughter all the boys under the age of two years old, lest one of them pose a threat to its earthly power.
God’s power seeks to shed power in the name of solidarity with us. In perhaps one of the oldest hymns in Christianity, preserved for us by St. Paul, we read:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.Philippians 2:5–8 NRSV
And thus, we find the answer to our question: where is God in this post-Christmas letdown? In the sudden return of the unjust world?
There God is: fleeing with a family seeking refuge from violent persecution by a murderous and unjust king.
There God is: mourning the death of a child at the hands of Empire.
There God is: on the margins. Not in the halls of the mighty and powerful, but off to the side. Not with the Scrooges, but with the Cratchits. Not with the Caesars, but with the oppressed. In the neighborhoods no one pays attention to. In the towns trodden underfoot by the mighty. In the places where it seems God is absent the most, there God is.
If we would meet God, those are the places we are called to go as well. To the margins. To the outcast. To the ones driven from their homes. To the ones mourning an unjust death. There is where we as a church are called to be.
One of the most important aspects about the Christmas story, after all, is not the sentimental imagery that makes for so many Christmas cards, with lowing cattle and swaddled babies. It is the radical declaration by the Eternal God of solidarity with mortal, frail, fleeting humanity. The miracle of Christmas is that God should come to us, not in power and majesty, but in vulnerability, need, and powerlessness.
It is a stunning proclamation: God has declared solidarity with us, taking on our weakness, our sorrows, or suffering, and ultimately, our death. God’s solidarity doesn’t mean that the terrible things of the world don’t happen. But it does mean that when they happen we are not alone, we are not removed from God’s presence. When we find ourselves on the margins, there God is—with us.
And so, when we seek God, we don’t look for displays of power and might, the way we would from a human ruler, we look for displays of vulnerability, of love, of grace, and of solidarity.
If we would be a church that truly represents the love and grace of God in the world, we, too, would do so in declarations of solidarity with those on the margins. We would lend our voices to those overlooked and trodden upon by the powerful. We would speak out for their protection, their dignity, their rights, and for their justice. We would follow our God to the margins, so that in our solidarity and witness, we might speed the day when Rachel no longer has to weep for her children.
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”