The First Sunday after Christmas, January 1, 2023

November 27, 2022 | by Bruce Epperly

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Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23

We begin a new adventure in the Process and Faith Lectionary Commentaries, reviving this series for a new day, on what is typically described as a “low Sunday.”  The spirit of Christmas often languishes in our churches after Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and we are off to business as usual, letting our busy schedules crowding out the spirit of spaciousness, incarnation, and generosity.  The “Christmas and Easter” attendees have done their duty and regular attendees may be nursing hangovers from New Year’s Eve celebrations and the surfeit of football games and sugared desserts. And then, the preacher looks at the Gospel reading with its violence and thinks, “I better pass this on to the Associate” or “ask a retired pastor to fill in” while I recover from the holidays, someone perhaps like myself. “Maybe it’s time for a carol sing and bag the scriptures altogether!” The First Sunday after Christmas can be a buzzkill for preacher and congregation alike.

In speaking about today’s scriptures, one pastor confessed, “I don’t want to preach the Gospel today. I don’t want to dampen their spirits so soon with the Flight to Egypt and the Massacre of the Children.”  As the song says, “We need a little Christmas,” and this year we barely have aweek of congregational Christmas cheer! We still want the glow of holiday cheer and the innocent romance of Hallmark Movies, and yet life is complicated, and we must address wonder and bewilderment, and miracle and mean-spiritedness, if we are to be faithful to God’s call in our lives.  Christmas is magical and it is also profoundly political, revealing the dangers inherent in authoritarian and grievance politics, then and now.

Today’s scriptures in their contrasts reflect Whitehead’s hope for “Tragic Beauty,” the interplay of idealism, hope, and wonder, and the reality of pain and political violence. “Tragic Beauty” aims to redeem the broken world in a larger, more holistic vision, reflective of God’s vision of the beauty, goodness, and peace. As a preacher, I would like to stop at Psalm 148. but I must also address the violence of Matthew 2 to be faithful to our world of complexity and contrast in which, as Whitehead avers, “the fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.”[i]

Psalm 148 describes a world of praise.  All creation reveals divinity.  All creation has a godward orientation.  The world is alive, and humankind shares in the radical amazement of a world in which our cells and souls delight in God’s voice within our voices.  If creation is true to its nature, all creation and us included praises God. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king…and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.” Welcome Epiphany.  Delight in Theophany. As a hymn of my Baptist childhood, proclaims, “this is my story, this my song, praising my savior all the day long.”

Psalm 148 reveals the pan-experiential universe of process theology.  It is also a description of the pan-ethical universe of process theology. Whatever can praise deserves ethical consideration, and non-human and human alike deserve our care.  Psalm 148 is a clarion call to rejoice in experience and value everywhere, to have reverence for life in its abundance, and to see ourselves as a part of and not apart from the non-human world.  When the Psalmist concludes the text (Psalm 150:6), “let everything that breathes praise God,” this affirmation must shape our ethics, business practices, and hopes for the future.  Christmas proclaims Incarnation, and for Incarnation to be anywhere, it must be everywhere, and when we see Jesus in the manger, we must look for him in the animal companions who witnessed his birth.

Alas, we must consider the tragedy and tragic consequences of not seeing the holy in all things and closing our senses to the world of praise.  This is the world of Herod and his minions, and dare we say, ourselves and our leaders when we turn from praise to power and amazement to apathy.

The Gospel begins with mysticism.  Joseph has a dream, guiding his steps to Egypt to save the newborn Jesus.  God is present in every moment of experience, providing images and feeling tones leading us toward wholeness.  The Divine presence aims toward the realization of possibilities and also provides guidance in a complicated and often dangerous world.  The Divine lure pushes Joseph toward Egypt.  The holy family takes flight as do refugees in every age, looking for safety, freedom, a better life. The holy family – and Jesus – survives through the welcome of strangers.  The Divine addressed Egyptian residents in their response to a family fleeing for their lives.  God addresses us in the millions of refugees seeking survival and dreaming of a better life.  While the immigrant – undocumented Jesus – does not give us clear principles for immigration reform and border policy, it tells us that: 1) immigrants are children of God, and need to be treated as such, personally and politically, 2) hospitality must be given to the immigrant, regardless of their final destination, and 3) political shenanigans using refugees as political pawns or describing them as thugs and murderers is contrary to the gospel message.  That the holy family is a refugee family challenges us, as does Psalm 148, to give ethical consideration to today’s refugees and to respond to the root causes of forced immigration.

Joseph receives two more dreams.  Dreams matter, dreams can be messages of God, as Carl Jung and process-Jungian theologian Sheri Kling assert, and we best pay attention to them.  God comes to us through the unconscious as well as conscious, through our cells as well as our soul.  The flight to Egypt calls us to empathy for the stranger, immigrant, undocumented worker, and DACA teen, and this empathy translates to listening to their stories, feeling their pain, and honoring their dreams. (For more on the Christmas stories, see Bruce Epperly, “From Cosmos to Cradle: Meditations on the Incarnation,” Energion Publications, 2022 and for a discussion of Jung and Process, see Sheri D. Kling, “A Process Spirituality: Christian and Transreligious Resources for Transformation,” Lexington Books, 2020.)

The passages from Isaiah and Hebrews continue the themes of the Psalm and Gospel.  God is empathetic, feeling our pain, the fellow sufferer who understands and the joyful companion who celebrates.  God is not beyond the world.  God comes to us as Christ, who shares in our suffering and joy, who knows our world from the inside out and not from afar.  God is not apathetic, unfeeling; God is empathetic, the heart of the universe, beating with our hearts and the hearts of those around us.  God’s eye is on the sparrow and the Right Whale, as Psalm 148 proclaims. God is also on the road with every refugee and immigrant.  The holy family is every family seeking a better life.

While not partisan, it is clear that Christmas is political and the birth of Jesus invites us to put the wellbeing of the vulnerable, of Christ in Christ’s distressing disguises (Mother/Saint Teresa) at the heart of our Christmas celebrations. If we are to keep Christmas all year long, we must embody the compassionate and empathetic spirit of the holy day in our response to all God’s children. Beyond the Hallmark kiss is God’s kiss of peace, the embrace of Shalom encompassing and inspiring all of us to “joy to the world, Christ has come.”

[i] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 338, part V, chapter 1, section 1.

Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including The Elephant Is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism; Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision Of Contemplative Activism; Mystic’s In Action: Twelve Saints For Today; Walking With Saint Francis: From Privilege To Activism; Messy Incarnation: Meditations On Process Christology, and From Cosmos To Cradle: Meditations On The Incarnation. His latest book is The Prophetic Amos Speaks To America. He can be reached for seminars and talks at