This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.
A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.
I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.
Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.
While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.
You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.
It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.
Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.
The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.
Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.
Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.
Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ
I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.
I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ
Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.
Not at all.
At least not according to Matthew.
According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.
And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:
The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads
The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down
The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed
The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted
And fathers being shoved aside
And mothers gasping
And babies being taken.
It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.
It was not a silent night-
That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name
That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.
It wasnʼt a silent night.
Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.
Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.
In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.
Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.
Christmas, real Christmas, is light.
Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.
And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.
So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.
Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.
The stuff of hashtags is all there:
Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.
Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.
Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.
Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.
And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:
When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.
I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.
What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.
Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.
I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.
Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.
Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.
But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.
My place in the story is as a member of the empire.
Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.
Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.
That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.
So itʼs strange.
When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.
I mean you have to give Herod credit.
He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.
He knew bad news when he heard it.
He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.
Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:
With those on margins.
With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.
With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.
With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.
For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.
Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.
I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.
To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.
These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.
These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.
And there I was. From a different world completely.
Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.
She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ
And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.
And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.
Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.
Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.
She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.
Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.
There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.
Thatʼs why heʼs born.
In the dark.