Hebrews 2, 10-18; Matthew 2,13-23
On Christmas Eve at Midnight we were with John the Divine, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness.
On Christmas morning we went with Luke to the manger and worshipped with the rustic shepherds.
But this morning we are back in the real world, with Matthew. This is the part of the story that is never depicted on Christmas cards and is never acted out in children’s nativity plays, because, as T S Eliot said, human beings cannot bear too much reality. It doesn’t even even get into modern TV nativities – the ones that are supposed to be as real as Eastenders! For many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, Christmas is a short escape from the harsh world of reality, and they would prefer to forget this part of Matthew’s story, lest it spoil that escape.
When, in a meeting of our house group before Christmas, we looked at the two versions of Christ’s birth the one in Luke’s Gospel and the very different one in Matthew’s Gospel, someone remarked they much preferred Luke’s story to Matthew. In Luke’s story there are problems before the birth, as Mary has to travel a long distance when she’s heavily pregnant, and isn’t given a private place to give birth. But after the joyful shepherds have visited, everything is normal and peaceful. Mary and Joseph name their child, take him to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple, then go peacefully back home to Nazareth.
Matthew’s tale is much darker. Trouble looms from the moment the wise men stop to ask Herod where the royal baby is to be born. He hatches a plan to let them lead him to the threat to his dynasty.
As our reading takes up the story, the exotic magi have gone home by another way, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, leaving Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to face an uncertain future. Herod has realized Plan A is not going to work, and has put plan B into action – kill all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the one among them who may grow up to be a threat to his power.
So, like many families the world over, Mary and Joseph are forced to take their baby away from their home, and become refugees in a foreign land, camping out there until the threat to their child seems to have gone; but even then, they continue to take precautions, keeping away from areas near the capital, and setting up home in a Northern backwater, while their son grows to maturity.
Politics and plots, massacres, flight and life in a refugee camp: it’s just like the news we see year after year in the media. Not very Christmassy, is it?
But it is Christmassy. Christ’s Mass is not about making the world a fairy tale place, with only sweet smelling straw, starlight and candlelight, cuddly animals and foreign visitors who bring rich and exotic gifts. It’s about living on in the real world, a world where tyrants do send their soldiers to slaughter whole populations including woman and children.
A world where families do have to leave their homes and face insecurity to escape persecution.
A world where fathers do have to think carefully about where they choose to live, in order that their wives and children may be reasonably safe.
A world where women like Rachel continue to weep for their children who are no more.
But yet it’s about living in the real world transformed, because of Immanuel, God with us. It’s about a world where we need no longer feel ourselves alone or powerless in the face of such evil. It’s about a world where we know God’s presence alongside us, experiencing the worst that life can throw at us, but never defeated, nor destroyed. It’s about living in our fallen world with the hope that there is a better way, and that ultimately, in spite of all appearances, that better way will triumph.
Matthew’s Christmas story was written to show us that everything we might have to suffer, everything that his ancestors suffered, Jesus also suffered. That is what the name he was given by the angel means: Emmanuel, God with us, going through everything we have to go through.
Christmas is not just about the children, it’s not just about December 25th, it’s not about the 12 Days of Christmas, it’s not even just about the extended church season of Christmas that extends to Candlemas at the beginning of February. It’s about how we live through the whole year and every year, in the faith that God is with us, no matter what our trouble or distress, and that the divine presence will support us and save us no matter what we have to face on our journey through life.
So happy continuing Christmas to you all. Happy New Year.