The Matthew Christmas story shows a holy family no stranger to sorrow, and with a faith in a God of exile who comes to comfort and to save.
Matthewís text connects the inconsolable sorrow of women whose children were taken from them into Babylonian captivity with the inconsolable sorrow of the women whose children are slaughtered by Herodís murderous campaign to kill the child born to be king of the Jews. And both are connected with a Christ child born in Bethlehem, born to save and born himself to die.
The three place-names mentioned prominently in the text -- Bethlehem, Ramah, Egypt -- all tell of Godís presence with us, Immanuel, even in exile, even when our grief feels inconsolable and permanent as every living breath.
Bethlehem: City of David; place of Herodís slaughter of the innocents; today a town where no one walks unafraid and where children are caught in political and religious hatred.
Ramah: The travel road from Judah to Babylon where mothers helplessly watched their children led away into captivity; today the perilous road from Jerusalem to Bagdad.
Egypt: The land of Pharaohs and slavery where the Hebrew people cried out to their God and where they experienced the wonder of Exodus.
The Coventry Carol captures the terrifying moment as mothers sang last lullabies to their children as Herod began his campaign of murder. Christ was born in the land of dying children. He still is.
The story begins with the magi. These wise men represented the highest of learning and spiritual yearning in the Gentile world. They came from an area where Iran and Iraq sit today. Their study of the stars and their own sacred writings led them to believe a momentous birth had occurred in the land to the west. They followed the stars to Judah.
There they gained audience with King Herod the Great and explained their quest to find the newborn king of the Jews. Did he have any knowledge which could help them find him?
Herod was not exactly the best person to ask. He had this nasty little problem with paranoia and was insanely protective of his power. During the course of his reign he had murdered one of his wives, Mariamne, and three of his sons. Caesar Augustus is quoted as saying that it was safer to be Herodís pig than Herodís son.
Wrong person to ask!
When Herod heard what the magi had to say, the text says he was "troubled." Troubled is not quite the word. He called in his religious advisers, the palace chaplains, and asked them, "Do Hebrew scriptures identify the place of birth for this so-called king of the Jews?" They reported back that Micah the prophet had identified Bethlehem as such a place. Micah probably turned over in his grave.
Religion is all too often for sale to the highest bidder, and especially vulnerable to the lures of political power. And scripture, then as now, is tragically used to serve the violent purposes of culture and state --from the blood ritual of lynching of blacks in the South, to the training schools for Muslim terrorists, to preachers who fancy their access to power. (We preachers who donít have access to power envy those who do.)
Herod then secretly called for the wise men. Evil always operates in secret. He asked them for more details about this child born to be king, his murderous mind at its more fastidious. Then he said, "Go search diligently for the child, and when you find him, come back and tell me where he is, so I may go and pay him homage myself."
There was probably something in the way he said these words that made the magisí blood run cold, and turned their stomachs queasy. Something felt terribly wrong.
They left the king and went to Bethlehem. There they found Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus Ė who was perhaps a toddler by now. There they knelt and worshiped him and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh Ė gifts literally fit for a king.
When it came time for them to leave, they did not go back to Herod, but headed straight home. The poet Longfellow has captured the scene:
At this point in the story, letís pause and reflect for a moment on the nature of divine revelation. God reveals Godís self through nature -- in what Celtic Christians called the Book of Creation. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims Godís handiwork." The magi studied the stars for signs of God.
God reveals Godís self in sacred writings, in the Book of Scripture. The scribes and priests searched Hebrew scriptures for God.
But neither of these sources of revelation is enough. We can misread the text of creation, and as for sacred scriptures, they are so easily misunderstood and manipulated by other forces and desires.
We need some truer guide, some clearer revelation. This is what we have been given by God in Christ: A clearer picture of who God is and what God wants for us, a key to unlocking the truth of both creation and scripture.
And seeing him, the Christ-spirit within us recognizes in him the Christ, and we kneel and worship him. But he wants more than worship; he wants us to follow, follow him and the way of the kingdom -- which is our finest worship.
The story takes now the horrifying turn of Herodís slaughter of all children under two in and around Bethlehem. Some scholars estimate the numbers killed as twenty to thirty. Others estimate in the hundreds. No ancient historian has recorded this terrible deed. But dead children, especially children in remote areas born to common people, are rarely noted.
Fred Craddock tells of a conversation overheard in a barbershop near the end of the Persian Gulf War. The barber said, "Isnít it a miracle that only a handful were killed." The customer said, "I thought over one hundred thousand were killed." The barber said, "Oh, youíre counting Iraqis." The man in the chair said, "I count Iraqis too." What this text says is that God counts Iraqis too! And every child who dies for whatever reason, by whatever hand.
Mary and Joseph are warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. Joseph, like his namesake in the Old Testament, is especially attentive to Godís message in dreams.
Dreams are where our conscious and unconscious minds speak to one another and where Godís Spirit can speak to our unguarded minds and hearts.
In a famous painting by the Italian Gentileschi, "Rest on the Flight to Egypt," Mary is pictured nursing Jesus and Joseph is shown head back, dead asleep flopped over his travel bags. But his sleep is not only for badly needed rest; it also signifies his openness to God in dreams.
After a stay in Egypt, Godís messenger in a dream tells Joseph: Get up and return home, "for those who were seeking the childís life are dead." It is a message of great hopefulness and irony: The killers of children are themselves dead. Evil may have its day, but the day always comes to an end.
The message of Christmas in exile is: The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot put it out. The darkness will rage against the light but will not overcome it. Even Jesusí own death by execution will not avail to extinguish the light. The light shines on!
The message of Christmas in exile is that in the midst of the terror of the world, the terror will not win; and that in the land of dying children, God is on the side of the children.
The message of Christmas in exile is: Watch the toddler! See what he becomes. Follow his ways. In a world dominated by war and rumors of war, where children are taught to be suicide bombers and Baptist missionaries are murdered by Muslim zealots in the hospital where they are trying to be the love of God and light of Christ, in a world where retribution seems the law and violence is seen as the only cure for violence, there is another way, the way of the one called prince of peace, who told his disciples to put down their swords and to step out of the endless cycle of vengeance.
The message of Christmas in exile is that the light that shines in the darkness is the mercy of God, a mercy deeper and stronger than anything else in the world, a mercy given even to us in our worst. As the fourteenth-century poet William Langland wrote:
A light has dawned. It is the mercy of God. Live in that light.