On December 16, 2014 Taliban terrorists entered a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and massacred 133 school children whose only crime was that they were children of the soldiers of a regime with whom the terrorists disagreed. On December 14, 2012, two years ago but not to be forgotten by any of us, a madman with an assault rifle murdered 20 children and six of their teachers and administrators at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The deaths of these Holy Innocents leave us shaken, frightened, and questioning of the goodness of God. From the time of the Epiphany gospel (Matthew 2:1-18) to our own, the world has seen a sickening number assaults on innocent life, and nothing can strike us more deeply than the senseless deaths of children. And yet we must face the realities of this violent world if we are to hear the grace of the gospel.
In response to the bumper-sticker demand to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently preached a stirring sermon on keeping Herod in Christmas. Pastor Bolz-Weber lamented the biblical inaccuracies of pretty Christmas cards depicting Magi on camels worshiping Christ in the stable along with adoring shepherds and angels. The reality of the gospel nativity story (or, more accurately stories as our Hallmark iconography actually combines both the accounts of Matthew and Luke) is far less pleasant. In a desire to feel all warm and fuzzy during the holiday season, we often forget the horrible tale related in Matthew 2:13-18, the tale of the jealous tyrant Herod and his attempt to eliminate the rival king Jesus by massacring all the male children of Bethlehem.
To be honest, the massacre described in Matthew may not have actually taken place as it is not recorded by any of the historians of the time. It has also been suggested that if the event actually did occur, the number of boys under age two in the tiny town of Bethlehem at that time was not significant enough to rate a mention. We do know, however, that Herod the Great was a ruthless despot who was not above murdering his wife and two of his own sons as well as committing other acts of brutality in order to secure his power over the people. As such, he stands in a long line of power-mad beasts stretching down past Hitler and Stalin to Bashar Al-Assad, Joseph Kony and others who think nothing of robbing innocents of their lives. Whether Herod committed the act attributed to him in the bible or not, we cannot deny that such acts have been and constantly are repeated on this violent and sinful planet.
But Matthew uses this story for specific reasons of his own. Jesus parallels Moses as a child in danger from the power structure of his day. Yet in spite of the power on the throne, the power of God rescues the boy child so he can rescue his people. Joseph the carpenter parallels Joseph the son of Jacob who journeys down into Egypt—an unwelcome journey, but one which will ultimately be for the salvation of the nation. The Jewish audience of Matthew's time would have understood these allusions, and would look to Jesus as the new Moses.
What was significant to the early Christians as well as to us in this story is that the birth of Jesus was a light to the Gentiles, to foreigners and people who are just not like us. The Magi described were probably ancient astrologers who believed that astronomical events accompanied the birth of great people. (The number three comes from the three types of gifts they bring, but the bible does not specify how many Magi there were. They became “kings” in later Christian history when churchmen attributed the reference in Psalm 72 to kings bringing tribute to the messiah to the Magi. Just thought you should know this!)
The early church depicted these non-Jews as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an elderly man in their iconography to represent that Jesus came for all the ages. They also present the Magi as a Middle-Easterner, a European, and a sub-Saharan African to proclaim that Jesus came for all races and nations. It must have been inspirational for these early Christian artists to proclaim that, despite official persecution from Jews and the Roman Empire, people on three continents were worshiping Jesus as their Lord and Savior within a generation of his crucifixion.
But Matthew's story has one more important symbolic element. The Magi are from the East, and they follow a star. That is, they are from the point where the light comes, where the sun rises, and they seek the LIGHT and find it in Jesus.
No matter how evil and frightening the darkness of this world is—in Matthew's day or our own—we still find the light in Christ. In Jesus we see unconditional love and acceptance. We see the beauty of sacrifice, of giving ourselves out of love for others. We see the cleansing and healing power of forgiveness. We see compassion. No matter how barbaric this world becomes, the light of Christ does not go out. For every act of outrage, there are acts of love and mercy, declaring that the darkness is ultimately doomed and will never prevail as long as we keep seeking the light. And when people seek the light, the world changes. Believe it.
A blessed Epiphany season to you all and a Happy New Year!
PS-Listen or read Pastor Bolz-Weber's moving sermon by clicking here.