Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Slaughter Of The Innocents. A Homily for 12.29.31, the 1st Sunday after Christmas from Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23.

December 29, 2013
1st Sunday After Christmas
Year A.
(edited and revised from a previous 
Homily posted 12.19.2010)

The Lectionary Gospel reading for this 1st Sunday after Christmas almost defies description. A deeply challenging text, it stands as stark testimony to the abusive power of the State, and a statement that parses the mystery of just who this GOD is we Christians claim to know.

The angel warns Joseph in a dream: 
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Clearly, the dictator King is concerned for his throne and his dynasty, so when he hears from the Magi that they search for the new king, well, he knows how to act -- with decisive and vicious haste. 

Of course, you know the story, the Magi do not tell Herod where to find the new king, so he takes matters into his own hands: 
"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." (Mt.2:16)
What would it take to murder those children? What kind of man could think that soldiering duties included the slaughter of the innocents? Apparently, many. 

If anything punctuates the way of the world it is Herod and this atrocity. And, even though on the surface it may be difficult for us in the West to understand such brutality -- seemingly being blessed and sheltered as we are from the rest of the world's reality -- it is true none-the-less that men with guns rule most of the world with impunity and brutality. 

And, it is also true that we in the West have acted in many ways we that echo King Herod. Here I’m reminded how the history of our treatment of the Native Americans included this very behavior toward children, or we can recall the Nazi’s treatment of “less than human” children, or finally, we can think of the sexually exploited in our own communities today. Brutality continues unabated, it seems, and very close indeed!

Thus, St. Matthew would have us to understand that the only way Jesus was saved was by warning. I appreciate N.T. Wright's comments at this point: 
"The gospel of Jesus the Messiah was born, then, in a land and at a time of trouble, tension, violence and fear. Banish all thoughts of peaceful Christmas scenes. Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head."
This brings to mind what has become my favorite Christmas song, "Welcome To Our World," by Chris Rice (to listen go here):

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking
How we need to hear from God
You've been promised, we've been waiting

Welcome Holy Child
Welcome Holy Child

Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make Yourself at home
Please make Yourself at home
Bring Your peace into our violence
Bid our hungry souls be filled
Word now breaking Heaven's silence

Welcome to our world
Welcome to our world

Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn
Tiny heart whose blood will save us
Unto us is born
Unto us is born
So wrap our injured flesh around You
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy

Perfect Son of God
Perfect Son of God
Welcome to our world

Welcome to our world, indeed. 

All of this brings forward a much deeper challenge, one I hesitate in airing. However, in my own defense, I think if we do not say what is patently obvious we not only fail to take the text seriously, we also, and in a more profound way, fail to see the mystery of the GOD who is there.

What I mean is this: 
Why just warn one family about Herod?  
Why doesn't the angel warn them all? 

I do not understand this, and I blanch at the ramifications. If GOD could save one, why not save all? If GOD has the power to enter the dream of one peasant father, why not all peasant fathers? Why are all the innocents not protected?

All of which ultimately takes us to the questions concerning the problems evil and of accidents in the world, and here we have moved to the borderland of faith. Here we touch the mystery of GOD. Here we are confronted with the deeply unsatisfying truth that GOD's ways are not our ways. And, here, we are thrust onto the difficult and final question of faith — “will we still believe anyhow?”

That is, will we believe in the goodness and the providence of GOD, even in the face of holocausts and tsunamis?  Will we believe -- which means will we follow GOD with all we have and all we are -- even when we do not understand what is at work?

The Prophet Isaiah has GOD explaining himself in this way:  
5 I am the LORD; there is no other God. I have prepared you, even though you do not know me, 6 so all the world from east to west will know there is no other God. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I am the one who creates the light and makes the darkness. I am the one who sends good times and bad times. I, the LORD, am the one who does these things. 8 Open up, O heavens, and pour out your righteousness. Let the earth open wide so salvation and righteousness can sprout up together. I, the LORD, created them. 9 "Destruction is certain for those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot ever argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, 'Stop, you are doing it wrong!' Does the pot exclaim, 'How clumsy can you be!' 10 How terrible it would be if a newborn baby said to its father and mother, 'Why was I born? Why did you make me this way?'" 11 This is what the LORD, the Creator and Holy One of Israel, says: "Do you question what I do? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands? (Isaiah 45:6-11)
Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggmann has a word that he sometimes uses to describe the GOD of the Old Testament. He calls this GOD irascible, which means crabby, angry, bearish, cantankerous, cranky, cross, or feisty. I think he uses this word to illustrate to our ears what is patently obvious in the text -- we do not have handles and levers on GOD. We cannot manipulate and manage GOD in a ways that cause actions we would wish.

Ultimately, then, we are left with this one truth from the text. Namely this: 
GOD is with us. 
This we learned from last Sunday’s gospel reading. GOD became part of our world, being plunged into the same violence and the same hate and greed and sadness as we all are. Here, GOD becomes subject to the same heart-ache and destiny of death that we all share. Could there be any more statement of solidarity? 

We, of course, want things to be fixed, mended, tied in a bow and left on the doorstep, but, for some reason, this is not the way it must be. Instead, we are asked, in faith, to join the work the incarnation began. This means we must slide down into the stench, the brokenness and the lostness of the world with anyhow love -- "like GOD, we love others anyhow".  Here we absorb the pain of the world, and like Jesus, we join the suffering of the cross. This, ultimately is the way of the Christ, and anything short of this allows us to succumb to the evil of the human condition within our own hearts.