Merry Christmas! We still have a little bit of time left in the twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany begins with Evening Prayer tonight, and then we enter a short season which revolves around epiphanies – discoveries of Jesus and who he is.
The great story of Epiphany of course is the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn king. But that is for tomorrow. Today’s gospel talks about what happened right after the wise men left. We’re getting the story a bit back to front, but that’s ok.
An angel visits Joseph in a dream and warns him to take Mary and the child to Egypt, where they will be safe from Herod. It’s not an easy trip to take on foot and on donkey. It’s not an way journey for a woman who has just been through the rigors of childbirth and for a newborn infant. And yet the dangers of the journey were less than the danger if they stayed in Bethlehem. Our gospel reading skipped over that part. Here’s what it left out:
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:Matthew 2:16-18 [NRSV]
‘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.’
Herod sent troops to kill the babies. We remember this as the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. From earliest times, the church has honored them as martyrs for Christ, the first victims in an age old war between Christ and the powers of evil. St. Augustine describes the Holy Innocents: “they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.” We mourn them and honor them with their own commemoration on December 28th each year.
Their story, the lives of these unnamed and unknown children, is joined to the countless other innocent victims of humanity’s collective sin. When we remember the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem, we remember the children who suffer in Bethlehem today, and the children who live on the other side of the security wall today. All of them, innocent victims of the threat of violence. We remember countless children who have died in wars, the children who have died through neglect and abuse.
So Herod sent soldiers to kill the babies of Bethlehem. He did so because he has heard about the birth of a king, and he was scared. Those in power want to stay in power, and again and again we find that they will stop at little to do so. Centuries before, when the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh grew afraid because Israel was growing in numbers and strength. He, too, ordered the death of the newborn. It seems to be a pattern with dictators, to cling to their own thrones through violence that shocks and stuns a sane person.
If only Pharaoh and Herod were the only ones! But we have seen it again and again, in Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, in the Balkans and in Rwanda, in the desert and in the ocean. The children keep dying, although we know it is wrong.
An angel warned Joseph to flee with his new family, and they became refugees from the violence. We might ask why God didn’t send an angel instead to turn back the soldiers, or to soften Herod’s heart. We might turn to God, as we do whenever tragedy strikes, and demand to know how God could let this happen. But then God would only ask us how we could let this happen.
Human beings were created, way back at the beginning, in the image of God. We were given a special role in creation: to be stewards of the earth, to govern it. To help us with this task, God gave humans alone of all creation special gifts of memory, reason, and skill. Above all, we were given the divine capacity to love, and because true love must be freely given, we were given the freedom of choice. These are mighty and powerful tools that the Creator has given us. When we are at our best, we use them in astoundingly creative ways – medicine and technology, the thoughtful struggle for equality, the advocacy for the poor, the increase of wealth and resources.
But we have a long way to go in learning to be responsible stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. We have a lot to learn. Joseph shows us a starting point. A man of spiritual strength, he was able to hear the message of the angel, and he followed what the angel told him to do. This is the essence of discipleship – to become attuned to the voice of God, and then to do what God advises.
We may ask why God didn’t send the angel to Herod or to the soldiers. Perhaps God did, but Herod ignored the angel and the soldiers didn’t hear the message. Joseph, though, spent time in prayer and silence, and so he could pick the angel’s voice out of the chaos of his dreams. Joseph was a disciple, and so he practiced the art of listening for God, and the discipline of shaping his will to the divine will. Joseph only did what any person is supposed to do.
It can’t have been easy. I mean, imagine how tough Joseph’s year had been. Discovering that Mary was mysteriously pregnant, facing the risk of ridicule and scorn, standing by her anyway, travelling the miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Bethlehem to Egypt, and assisting Mary in her childbirth, not a task that comes naturally to men.
It would be hard to know which of these things was the toughest part of Joseph’s difficult year. Yet, he did what needed to be done. He persisted. He took responsibility for the precious things that God had entrusted to him – not only a family, but with the most precious gift that God could entrust to any man: the care and protection of the only Son of God. It was an astounding responsibility. And yet Joseph was not a superhero. He was mortal flesh and blood, as we are mortal flesh and blood.
His care, his love, his faith, his prayer, his compassion helped to keep Jesus safe from harm. Our salvation depends in some small part to one good man’s discipleship.
Now, God is powerful beyond measure. God created everything, after all. But for some reason, God entrusted the life of Jesus to a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph. Without them, Jesus would not have lived. Why God entrusted them with this responsibility is a mystery. It is just as mysterious why God has entrusted us with the task of being the church, to keep alive the good news of Jesus Christ, and to help the kingdom to flourish in this world. Just as God trusted Joseph and Mary to help Jesus in his infancy, God trusts us to learn how to bring Christ’s peace into the world.
Why has God burdened us with so great a responsibility? Why does God not simply answer the cries of the victims and banish evil from creation? I don’t know. Perhaps it is time for us to step into our divine inheritance and become good stewards of creation. Perhaps it is time for us to learn what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do the challenging work of protecting them from harm.
In this New Year, let this be your resolution: to love as Joseph loved, to protect Jesus and those Jesus came to save, to learn to listen to the message of the angels, and to do the will of God with perseverance and prayer. If only we learned to do this, it would make the world a better place for the Holy Innocents of our own day and time.