Photo credit: Kat Jayne
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23, Secrets of Heaven 4572:2 (see below)
So, the lectionary doesn’t give us much of a breath after Christmas this year, does it? We are barely done with the sweet and joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth, when we are reminded by the gospel of Matthew that Jesus was born in a dangerous time, in dangerous circumstances. He was part of a poor Jewish family under Roman occupation, under the rule of a cruel and paranoid proxy king. This would have been a difficult life for any child. But for a child who is prophesied to be king of the Jews, to be the coming Messiah? There were many in power for whom that was not good news at all. And so, we brought face to face with Herod. We are brought face to face with the existence of evil.
So, yay, welcome to the first Sunday of the season of Christmas! This story probably the last thing that most of us want to talk about. But, sometimes if we focus too much on the *fact* of the incarnation we forget about the *why.* Yes, God loved humanity and that is why God came, but it wasn’t just a random or indulgent bestowal of love. It was a rescue. We —humanity—really needed God, so God came; came in a way that continues to help us wrestle with the Herodian spirit….even here and now.
So, right before our reading today we find the story of the Magi, which we will explore next week. They had been looking for the Messiah that the stars had foretold to them. Herod played along in order to find Jesus and destroy him. However, the Magi were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and so Herod never learned of Jesus’ exact location. Herod became furious and ordered a unilateral massacre of young boys in Bethlehem. Thankfully, another dream warned Joseph to leave, and he and Mary and Jesus were able to escape to Egypt just in time. But there were no dreams for the other children. To describe the devastation, the gospel writer quotes Jeremiah, another time of mourning for children lost in war:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Herod perpetrated a great evil with this fabled slaughter of the innocents. He was well known as a blood-thirsty, cruel and paranoid leader, characteristics that worsened significantly as he aged. He executed his second wife and two of their sons, as well as his own first born son, his mother-in-law and his brother-in-law. Additionally, according to the historian Josephus, he was apparently so concerned that his death would not be properly mourned that he arranged for a number of distinguished persons to be killed after he died so that there would be greater sorrow associated with his death. Thankfully, his surviving children did not follow through with that order.
While there is no historical record of the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem, the event is clearly consistent with Herod’s character and approach and could easily have been inspired by Herod’s killing of his own children. If he was so paranoid and suspicious with his own family, we can only imagine how he would have reacted to a report of the birth of the “king of the Jews.” In Herod’s mind, and of course, in terms of the earthly political order, *Herod* was the king of the Jews. The little baby Jesus in the manger was a usurper, and if Herod was going to hold on to power, that baby must be killed. Out of anger, vengeance and fear, he did what he felt he needed to do to preserve his own power.
In our world, Herod is one in a long line of tyrants who have found their way to power and done unconscionable things to keep that power. History books are full of the slaughter of innocents, whether in terms of actual loss of life, or in terms of the death of personal dignity, identity and autonomy. Even today, we need look no further than our newspapers to learn of family separations at the border, the epidemic of sexual abuse in border facilities, the record number of deaths of black transgender women this year, or the record number of homeless deaths in some of our cities. Add #metoo, climate change, an increase in white supremacy and anti-semitism, and it seems that if we let it all in we might never be done with the weeping and mourning. When we come to understand, for example, the extreme psychological effects of thousands of children being separated from their parents, how can we ever be consoled? That loss is forever. That innocence will never be regained.
And for such things, I believe we must be like Rachel, and refuse to be comforted, we must refuse to be consoled by a world that tells us such dehumanization and indignity is par-for-the-course, is justified, is normal, is necessary. For there is the consolation that the world gives, a consolation that would wipe away, cover over, distract from, all that would make us mourn, all that still needs to be done. The world whispers: This again? Aren’t you done with that already? Go on: learn to be okay; learn to appear strong; learn to appear effortlessly Instagram-ready.
Now to some ears, a refusal to be comforted might sound like it is a dismissal of God’s peace and grace. But I would argue that it is a true assimilation of the spirit of Christmas, for Herod is as much a part of the Christmas landscape as are the angels, shepherds and the Magi. And in fact, the incarnation happened because *God* refused to be consoled and reached out to humanity, believing that we could do better, believing that when given direction and freedom and inspiration that we would more often than not choose to stand for truth and love. Evil exists —evil actions, evil consequences, evil systems—and this is why God came, to save *us*, not to save us from distress. Salvation is not a life-boat that takes us away from this world and all that is in it. God’s consolation doesn’t mean looking away from all that would make us mourn and cry out. It means knowing that God is with us when we go through the hard things, that God will be with us when we need to face down the Herodian-spirit in our world and in our hearts. This is what we hear in our Isaiah reading as well:
“For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them;” (Isaiah 63:8-9)
God’s consolation is not a simple, “there there.” God’s consolation is not for purposes of anesthesia, for proving we are chosen, or for escaping pain. Consolation is what happens after transformation, when we recognize just how present God has been with us during our difficulty. From our Swedenborg reading:
Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present. (Secrets of Heaven 4572:2)
Comfort comes from good and truth being joined together in life. God’s consolation is a bone-deep recognition of God’s love, and it comes from doing the work that joins good and truth together in practice. It is not a reward for being strong, and it was never a promise that we won’t mourn again. It is a promise that we won’t ever mourn alone.
“...he was their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them…” God is our savior *within* our distress, within our suffering, within our life and within our world…and thus that salvation is not characterized by a disengagement but rather an increased sensitivity to injustice.
Like Rachel, refusing to be comforted means understanding the stakes. It means choosing to eschew all that would anesthetize us, it means resisting the status quo. It means being willing to show up when it matters. Because, and I don’t mean to depress you, but Herod will always be with us, in some way or another. It is part of the human condition. The problem is not so much the existence of evil but the excusing of it. The problem is when we no longer see evil, whether evil actions or evil systems, when such things no longer cause us to weep and to mourn. The problem is when we accept the world’s consolation: there there, its really not that bad. They should have followed the law. They should have been more careful. They should have gotten a job. They shouldn’t have been wearing that. They should have known their place. They should have put their hands up. They should have known this is how things work.
Yet, even so, God said yes to being in our world. God said yes to being a vulnerable baby dependent on his father listening to a dream. God said yes to a ministry that loved the supposedly unlovable. God said yes to a death that upended our notions of power. And in doing so, God showed us what is real and lasting. God showed us that the Herodian-spirit can never have the last word.
In Richard Rohr’s phrasing, “incarnation means not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe, God said yes to physicality…[and] so it is always Advent. God is forever coming into the world.”(1)
And boy do we need that.
(1) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Celebrating an Eternal Advent, 12/24/19
7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior 9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Secrets of Heaven 4572:2
In general it should be recognized that every joining together of good and truth is effected by means of temptations. The reason for this is that evils and falsities offer resistance and so to speak engage in rebellion, and by every means try to prevent the joining of good to truth, and of truth to good. This conflict takes place between the spirits present within humankind, that is to say, between the spirits governed by evils and falsities and the spirits governed by goods and truths. Human beings experience that conflict as temptation within themselves. When therefore the spirits governed by evils and falsities are conquered by the spirits governed by goods and truths, the former are compelled to depart and the latter receive joy from the Lord by way of heaven. This joy is also felt by the person concerned as comfort; they feel it within themselves. Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present.