A reflection on the readings for Christmas I:Isaiah 63. 7-9, Hebrew’s 2. 10-18, Matthew 2. 13-23 by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rogers
I am writing this on 23rd December, while the pre-Christmas preparations are well underway. We have had more snow here this December than can be remembered for many years. I have spent today getting the church ready for Christmas, putting up the crib and the Christmas tree, arranging flowers – all the usual preparations with a couple of faithful helpers. Everything now looks very festive, we are prepared for the arrival of a very special baby, God’s son, the Saviour of the world.
While we were doing all this there was a general discussion about a series that has been on TV the last few days. The series, ‘The Nativity’, has retold the story of the birth of Jesus. The anxieties, trials and tribulations of Mary & Joseph, the rejection they faced from their families and communities. All told in a way that would appeal not only to Christians, but also to those on the fringes of Christianity, those more in the secular world, each 30 min episode had the typical cliff-hanger ending usually seen in soap-world. Alongside the main event were the side stories of a hot-headed young shepherd, Thomas, struggling to pay his taxes, with a wife who is ill having just given birth to a baby, and that of the Magi travelling from the east following the star to Bethlehem.
I was struck by the way Joseph was portrayed. A man very much in love with Mary, keen to build a house for her, to provide for her and the many children they will have. Then, after the annunciation she disappears to visit her cousin Elizabeth, he doesn’t know why. By the time she returns her pregnancy is obvious, he doesn’t understand. Mary had tried to find the words to tell him before she went, now anything she says to him doesn’t make sense, he just feels betrayed. Despite this, on her father, Joachim’s request he takes her to Bethlehem with him so that she is safe from those in Nazareth who want to stone her as an adulteress. He stays true to his vow, and helps her. He still doesn’t believe what she has to say and then he has a dream, revealing that the child she is carrying is the son of God. Even then, he STILL doesn’t believe all that he has been told. Then when the planets converge and the most wonderful star appears over the stable appears, Joseph finally returns to Mary’s side and grabs her hand as Jesus is born, and finally he believes. It was a tear-jerker..!
Then Thomas, the shepherd arrives and realises the hope that the baby brings with its arrival, as he reaches down and kisses a tiny foot. It was the side-story of Thomas the shepherd that seemed to grab the imagination of my parishioners. One of them said to me ‘we don’t know whether the shepherd’s baby is a boy or a girl, if it turns out to be a boy I will cry’. We didn’t actually find out the answer to that question. Of course, as Christians we know the full story, we know what happens next. The story on TV ended with the birth of a baby in a stable in Bethlehem and the shepherds and Magi coming to worship that baby as the Messiah. We wait for Series 2..!
The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas takes us beyond that. The arrival of that baby, the predicted Messiah, puts so much fear into Herod the King that he has all of the new-born children killed. Suddenly the world is filled with fear and dread as babies are killed, mothers are weeping for their children. Joseph, thankfully dreams again and takes Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.
Herod was running scared, he clearly wasn’t thinking straight, he was so absorbed by his desire for power, that the arrival of Messiah in the form of a tiny baby was too much for him. There are a number of things he could have done, befriended Mary & Joseph, taken Jesus under his wing, nurtured him, influenced him and so in the future extended his rule. He could have worked out that such a tiny baby wasn’t going to be any threat to his rule just yet, he had a few years to work out a strategy. He could even have laughed at the wise-men and refused to believe that the Messiah was about to arrive. Instead, he sees the threat as genuine and immediate, something to be stamped out straight away and so he kills.
This needless slaughter may indeed be the fulfilment of a prophesy, but it is not necessarily God’s will. Violence of any kind goes against God’s wishes for us. However, the story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents is echoed, far too often, in the news stories of today. This sort of needless killing is still heard about today, infanticide, murder, acts of war and terrorism. Not to mention the needless suffering of others in other ways. None of this is God’s will – he gives us freedom to make our own choices. Part of human nature is self-defence, the ‘flight or fight’ response when we are attacked. Some, like Herod, retaliate to a perceived threat, defending themselves to ensure their own security no matter what it costs others. I have no doubt that God knows all too well that this is all too often our response and he weeps because of it and feels the suffering that is endured.
But God came into the world as a child, a baby who needs His mother to care for him, to feed him, to hold him. Austin Farrer puts it like this:
“Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men.” (from Said or Sung by Austin Farrer).
God choose to come into the world to draw us closer to him. He doesn’t fight back in the way we might expect he simply reaches out and draws us close in LOVE. Jesus grew up and chose to follow God’s will and die on the cross, and in rising again, he showed that even wrath and violence can never overcome or extinguish the love of God.