Saturday, January 5, 2013

Epiphany: The Other Side of the Christmas Story

"Wise Men" journey from "the East"
following a star to visit a newborn King.
Matthew 2:1-15
The visit of the wise men (recorded in Matthew 2) is on tap for this week in the lectionary (I know cause I'm reading!!)  I find it interesting that the "official" reading stops at v 15.  Hmmh?? Okay, they flee to Egypt, because Herod is upset about being tricked.  But I wonder why we don’t finish the chapter, or at least go as far as v 18.

Read on, and we learn how Herod responds. To guarantee no threats to his rule, the paranoid ruler orders infanticide—any male infant under age two is to be killed!  So the Holy Family becomes displaced refugees fleeing for fear of their son’s life.  Possibly, in a town the size of Bethlehem, this would only account for a few dozen infants and toddlers as opposed to hundreds or thousands—but does that make Herod’s act any less heinous?

Massacre of the Innocents
Matthew 2:16-18
It's almost as if we'd prefer to forget about the rest of Matthew 2, or at least skip vv 16-18.  I mean, it’s Christmas, for God’s sake!  Who wants to dwell on dead children, or on a grieving mother, weeping uncontrollably over the deaths of children?!

In 2012, we know that the people of Newtown, CT were weeping— and will weep for many Christmases to come.  Christmas will likely "never be the same" for them. Obviously Newtown and Bethlehem are worlds apart in many ways, but some of the details seem eerily similar.  In both cases, dozens of innocent children were murdered in cold blood.  

In 2008, it was more personal for me.  That was the first Christmas after our daughter Hope died two days after she was born.  That year—I wept bittersweet tears, as we also celebrated her identical twin sister Rebecca’s first Christmas with us.  In Rebecca’s eyes, even in our darkest days, we continued to see Hope.

I suppose there's a natural human tendency to focus on the good and joyful stories in the Bible, and especially at Christmas. Lord knows you won't see the Massacre of Innocents portrayed in the kid's Christmas Pageant—and, to be clear, I’m not advocating adding this scene to next year’s drama.

But as we progress in our Christian maturity, the Bible's PG- and R-rated scenes, such as the ones in Matthew 2, are appropriate—and important—to contemplate.   Likewise, if we wish to understand the full Story of Jesus, we also would do well to ponder the ominous and chilling end of Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2—words of warning spoken to Mary.  They come after the better known public blessing known as the Nunc Dimmitus (vv 29-32) where, upon seeing baby Jesus at the Temple, Simeon proclaims that he can now "die in peace" for his eyes have seen salvation.  Simeon goes on to proclaim that Jesus will be a light… to the Gentiles.  Those are revolutionary words for a Jewish priest to utter—echoing the prophecy of "The Servant" from Isaiah in the Old Testament (Isaiah 42:6-7).

Then comes the unsettling part of the prophecy.  Imagine Simeon stepping away from the crowd gathered, and sharing this last part in private[1].  He quietly tells Mary—and maybe Joseph: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’Luke 2:34-35 

Luke (writing decades after these events) uses Simeon’s prophetic words to foreshadow the events we remember during Lent and Holy Week.  Are these words history or literary device?  We aren’t entirely sure, but I can tell you that any mom (or dad) suffering loss of a child can certainly relate to feeling as if a sword has pierced our very soul.

Visting Hope's grave—Christmas 2012.
Rejoicing alongside weeping.
In the face of Rebecca we always see Hope.
So we are wise not to gloss over these “darker-themed” readings.  In any given year, we can be sure that someone in our midst needs to hear them.   Sometimes we are the ones rejoicing, other times we are the ones weeping—or maybe we’re experiencing both at the same time. (I can attest from my experience that sometimes the boundary between rejoicing and weeping is very thin.)

If we just leave Jesus in the manger (itself not exactly the Kodak moment with children and youth in bathrobes that we make it out to be) and then return to the empty tomb—I feel we miss crucial details to understanding Jesus. 

There is a darker side to Christmas—and to Christ—that we all need to experience and embrace if we want to fully appreciate the whole story of Jesus.  Maybe I feel it so acutely because I lived it in recent years following the loss of my daughter, and other difficult life circumstances.  It's not a path that any of us would choose to walk, but it's journey we ALL need to take.

The journey is difficult and painful, but we are more complete as individuals (and as a community) when we can embrace both rejoicing and weeping as part of our faith. 

If we can enter in to both rejoicing and weeping (suffering), we begin to appreciate how Christ entered in.  Jesus came to the world as it really was—and how it really is today—as opposed to the idyllic world portrayed in Hallmark cards.  Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion.  He didn't ignore the height of celebration and rejoicing, nor did he ignore the grim and gritty reality of suffering and tragedies that often defy explanation—like infants dying, or children being slaughtered in their beds… or classrooms.

Jesus didn’t flinch in the face of real life; he entered into it all—he came to be with us just as we were.  He didn’t wait for us to “clean up our act;” he rolled up his sleeves and helped with the “clean-up”. 

In taking on our flesh, Jesus got about as personal as you can get.  He experienced all of life as we experience it.  Through Jesus, God was redeeming not only us as individuals, but for the whole world, and for that to happen Jesus had to be fully human—while also fully divine.  The world was off course and God intended to put things right, and Jesus invited us to join him in that effort.  Jesus', life, death, and resurrection lay the seeds of that transformation, and still bears fruit today.  Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be with all those who follow him, and becomes real as you and I share him with those we meet. 

Indeed, the light of Christ dwells "in us" today, that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

[1] Thanks to Mary Lou Redding for this creative interpretation.  

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