|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Isaiah 63:7-9||Psalm 148||Hebrews 2:10-18||Matthew 2:1-23|
By Bruce G. Epperly
The First Sunday after Christmas presents the preacher with liturgical, spiritual, and theological challenges. The gospel reading selected by the lectionary committee (Matthew 2:13-23) plunges us directly into the holy family’s flight to Egypt and the “slaughter of the innocents.” Many pastors will be grateful for the respite of “low Sunday” or the opportunity to take a retreat following Christmas just to avoid addressing the text. Or, the preacher can do something innovative: he or she can expand on the lectionary readings to include the prologue to Matthew 2:1-12, often reserved for January 6, the Feast of Epiphany; thus making this year’s Christmas I the equivalent of Palm/Passion Sunday in its embrace of both celebration and tragedy. While this will preview the traditional Epiphany focus on the magi for some preachers, this repetition enables congregants to experience a more holistic understanding of the Christmas-Epiphany season.
One way to explore the tension within the readings is to begin the service with the visit of the magi; then, read the escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents prior to the sermon. The joy of Christmas can be accented with carols before turning to a more somber note.
The story of the magi points to the global nature of God’s revelation. The birth of Christ, while profoundly local, is also universal. The time and place of Jesus’ birth and childhood serve as the lens through which to interpret all points in time. God’s vision of justice and beauty pertains to all things, but some things can – through a combination of divine call and creaturely response – truly illuminate God’s presence and aim throughout history. Divine revelation touches every religious tradition; the Zoroastrian magi see the star of Jesus and faithfully follow its trajectory. In contrast, the king and religious leaders are both ignorant and hostile to God’s revelation in their own religious tradition.
The turning point in the gospel reading involves the magi’s collective dream, warning them not to return to Herod. God not only sends them a star, God sends them a dream, and unlike Herod and his court, they faithfully follow God’s inspiration. All people of the earth are touched by God, all people can reveal God’s grace, and all people can be sources of revelation to us.
“They left for their own country by another road.” This passage speaks to the nature of life in its novelty and surprise. Our plans are constantly being altered, for good or for ill; sometimes by accident, sometimes by grace, sometimes by synchronicity. The pathway of life is never direct, but God is present on the pathway, providing possibility, energy, and guidance for every step.
Midway through the service, the congregation may be invited to turn to the more somber aspects of human life. Perhaps, a hymn like “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” or “We Three Kings” can serve a turning point, shifting the mood from celebration to contemplation.
God’s revelation is always under threat. Divine power, the creative power moving through a 100 billion galaxies, must contend with creaturely decisions. God’s hopeful vision of Herod’s affirmation of the Christ child is dashed by Herod’s turning toward fear and self-interest. Herod’s lifelong inclinations may have prevented him from experiencing a new divinely-given possibility, emerging with the coming of the magi.
In the intricacy of life’s interdependence, Joseph receives a dream that he interprets as divine revelation. In some sort of paranormal fashion, Herod’s hatred unconsciously touches Joseph’s desire for his son to flourish. Did God uniquely touch Joseph in the realm of sighs too deep for words? Or, was he unique in his sensitivity to divine guidance? (While this may be a side issue: Did God also warn the mothers and fathers in Bethlehem? Were they not important, too? Or, was there initially less spiritual energy binding them with Herod and with God’s intentionality? It is clear that God’s vision did not include causing the death of infants, but God also cannot fully alter the course of Herod’s quest to kill the Christ child.)
The slaughter of the infants is not for the faint-hearted. If this passage is read, young children should be dismissed in advance! But, the story is realistic: every day countless children are dying as a result of decisions, whether through neglect, famine, or genocide. The massacre at Bethlehem highlights the incarnation: the Christ child is born into a world of violence as well as shalom, destruction as well as beauty, tragedy as well as healing. We must live in this world sensitive to beauty by letting God’s vision of beauty challenge us to care for those who are most at risk.
The scripture concludes with two more dreams, slowly guiding Joseph and his family back home. A note of prophecy is added to the account, making clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of his people’s dream of a Messiah. Most moderate and progressive preachers assume little or no connection between the prophetic writings and birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the following: if God has a concern for the broad spectrum of history as well as our moment by moment experiences, then God’s vision or aim for beauty can take into consideration centuries as well as days. While we don’t need to make a one-to-one correspondence between the gospels’ uses of the prophetic writings and the prophets’ intentions at the time, we need not sever them entirely. The history and dreams of the people were shaped by God and also shaped the nature of divine activity. God’s Messiah could only be born in a certain historical trajectory. Jesus is the child of the prophetic dream, not the hope of Indian mysticism. God can be at work in many historical, cultural, and spiritual streams to achieve God’s vision for humankind. (Stressing the unique gifts of God’s presence in Israel and Jesus’ life does not diminish other faiths, but affirms the diversity of divine revelation throughout the world.)
Psalm 148 paints a picture of a cosmic theophany: all things reveal God, but more than that, all things praise God. We live in a sacramental universe, at its depths completely aligned with God’s will. Yet, while the earth may ring with divine praise and the heavens declare the glory of God, this is a far cry from the groaning of creation and the shrieks of the massacred children and the keening of their parents. It is a “wonderful world,” but our day to day lives are infused with tragedy and God-forgetfulness.
Isaiah proclaims God’s steadfast and saving love: God will save the people; God sees their suffering and the results of their waywardness; and God will provide comfort, safety, and healing.
While Hebrews can be read in terms of substitutionary atonement – the belief that Jesus died on the cross to redeem our sins – it can be also read in terms of God’s identification with and experience of our suffering. God is “the fellow sufferer who understands,” as Whitehead asserts. In the spirit of early Christian theology, we can also affirm that by living through the seasons of life, including death, Jesus awakened us to experience holiness and beauty in every season. Jesus experienced pain, loneliness, death; as an infant, Jesus was under threat and became alien in a strange land. God is moving within the chemo ward, at the death bed, in the weary parents of a newborn, in the desperation of immigrants crossing into the United States, and in the fear and frustration of unemployed North American workers. God feels their pain – and invites us to create a culture of empathy – and, at the very least, imaginatively join with the “least of these” in our world.
The First Sunday after Christmas invites us to celebrative contemplation and realistic rejoicing. Our joy can’t be at expense of others; nor can we refrain from our carols. If we quit singing, there will no hope for transformation for us and our most vulnerable companions. God invites us to a transformed imagination that inspires celebrative empathy and the desire to welcome all of God’s children into the banquet of love.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.