The baby was born. The angels sang their songs and went back to heaven and the shepherds returned to tend their sheep, sitting around a campfire telling and re-telling the story of the bright star and the heavenly host. The joy subsided and things were getting back to normal. Yet, the silent night was only an illusion for King Herod, who flew into rage when he heard from the Magi that Jesus’s family had outwitted him and escaped. Herod had heard the story of the birth of this new king, and had made it clear that he intended to purge this future threat to his throne. So, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take the baby Jesus and Mary and get across the border as fast as they could to escape certain death. And the family stayed in Egypt a long time, long enough for the threat to their lives, Herod himself, to die.
After the death of King Herod, an angel hunted down the holy family and told them that it was safe to return home. However, their ancestral home, Bethlehem, and the whole region of Judea was now under the control of Herod’s son, Herod Archelaus, who was just as dangerous, violent, and murderous as his father had been. So, Mary and Joseph decided that the safest thing for them to do was to go straight to Nazareth. They apparently made the trip safe and sound which brings us to the end of our Gospel lesson for today. We have a sweet little happy ending to the Christmas story. Or do we?
Today, according to the church calendar and the liturgical year, it is Christmas 1, the first Sunday after Christmas. Technically, we are no longer in Advent. But I wanted to give us yet one more time to examine the power and prose of Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. As you know, we’ve studied and sung about Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas.” Here it is again and I think the words matter more after Christmas than they did during the season:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
As we’ve seen, this is a vibrant and beautiful poem. It calls us to do the work of Christmas, long after the season is over. And Thurman was pretty specific about what we should do all year round as we actually do the work of Christmas. We are to find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, and bring peace to the world. Each week in Advent we explored how to achieve just that and do the work of Christ in our lives and in the lives of others.
But on this first Sunday of Christmas, I want to give us one more item to put on our “to do” lists as we continue to pursue the work of Christmas. That item is – to protect the innocent. I can almost hear that phrase as being a piece of Thurman’s poem, to protect the innocent – “To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to protect the innocent.” And so, I’m adding this as something we must strive to do as we continue the work of Christmas this year.
You see, Christmas is often romanticized, isn’t it? We see the specialness of the incarnation, the divine coming to earth in a sweet, little baby. We get tender songs of a child asleep in the hay and extraordinarily wise people bringing extravagant gifts. We get the grandeur of angels and the gentleness of shepherds. And even in songs that aren’t based on the Biblical narrative, we get a drummer boy giving his only gift to the newborn savior. Granted, if someone was playing a drum in the same room as my sleeping baby, I probably wouldn’t have just nodded like Mary. But we do, we get this sentimentalized story of Christmas and often miss the reality of Christ’s birth, the reality of the human experience. And that’s why several commentators I read about said that we need to keep Herod in Christmas. That even in the bleakest and most violent and most hurtful parts of our lives, and despite the Herods, God still shows up.
And so today, after all of the celebrating is over, we turn our attention from the Christ who was born and take a look at the world into which Christ was born. The birth of Jesus in this text, in the Gospel of Matthew, “is described, not in Christmas card sentimentality, but in political realism.” Matthew’s story is one of wailing mothers, crying babies, a holy family fleeing. This is not the part of the narrative we often hear at Christmas.
I mean, when it comes down to it, the birth of Jesus set in motion a terrible event. It exacerbated the pride and fear of a king, causing him to massacre innocent children. Just because Christ came to earth and showed us how much God loves us and wants to prosper us, doesn’t mean that the world is magically better and the hate and hurt and violence doesn’t exist. Many Christians don’t want to acknowledge the gruesome story of today. And so, often times, preachers don’t preach on it and teachers don’t teach on it. We ignore it. It doesn’t capture the Christmas spirit and it hits too close to home. There are some who simply say that the killing of the innocents simply didn’t happen in history. It’s just a story.
British scholar and bishop, N.T. Wright, brings the realism back to the text. He says, “It is, frankly, incredible to me that someone living in the century of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot should find it difficult to believe that rulers can slaughter children for their own political ends. Furthermore, everything we know about Herod the Great (mostly from the Jewish historian Josephus, who had access to Herod’s court records) suggests that he was exactly the sort of man who would have had all the babies in a particular village executed if he had had the slightest suspicion that anyone was talking about a future king being born there. After all, Josephus tells us that this same Herod, around the same time, had several of his own family murdered because of his paranoia about plots against his life… It is no strain on the imagination to think that this same Herod would do what Matthew says he did.”
So, Matthew’s nativity is unlike the one we get in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew’s nativity has Herod in it. And this story with Herod in it reminds us that Jesus came into this world, the real world, the world where we live and work and struggle and strive. God did not remain above the human fray. Rather, God entered into our experience in order to bring peace to violence, hope to despair, love to hate, joy to sadness, power to weakness, and freedom to captivity. Christ will always be in Christmas… but so will Herod.
So, why is this story important and why do we have this text in the lectionary right after the warm and peaceful glow of Christmas? I think we are given this text because it is part of the work of Christmas to which we are called. We know that there is political and realistic significance to the incarnation. We know that we are beckoned by Matthew to notice the hurtful and death-filled rulers of the world and to do everything in our power to defy them, to defy the empire, to defy the darkness in order to protect the innocent. The incarnation, the coming of Christ, reveals to us that the ruling structures and systems are out to take all of the power and money and life that is in our world in any way that they can. And it is our job, as those who defy the darkness and who tear down evil schemes, to work this day and every day, to protect those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those who have no voice, to fight for those who have no strength, to cry for those whose tears won’t come, to move boldly ahead for those who have their backs against the wall. Jesus’ birth beckons us to protect the innocent.
Rev. Kerry Bond from the Living Pulpit Magazine said, “What happens when we banish Herod from Christmas? We market an insipid version of Christmas completely detached from the reality of the evil world we live in. But if we leave Herod in the Christmas narrative, our sermons can address the shadow of evil hovering over Christmas to this day. Herod still stalks the earth. He may be disguised in the military fatigues of a dictator. He murders children in Brazil by sending death squads when darkness falls. Herod sells Thai children as prostitutes to wealthy westerners. He detonates a car bomb that kills innocent people.” Herod still stalks the earth.
And because Herod still stalks the earth, we are called to protect the innocent. And that’s what good kings do. The Christ child joined humanity in suffering and in sorrow, in sin and sadness, to know and feel what even the most innocent of people felt. The Christ child was indeed king, but was not like Herod or any other king. His power was not shown in domination and might. No, in order to protect the innocent, to overcome a world of injustice, he gave his life over to suffering and death. God made Godself expendable, in solidarity with the innocent rather than powerful in concert with the empire and with Herod.
God is with those who are innocent, those who are treated as disposable, those who are treated as expendable, those who are treated as less than. The list is long and we must huddle up and protect the innocent from the forces of persecution and power. The list is long of migrant workers exploited because of their fear of deportation, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, LGTBQ youth living on the streets, the elderly isolated by loneliness, the poor facing food insecurities, trans people of color killed out of fear and otherness, the children sleeping in distress and starvation. Jesus, the Messiah born in poverty in Bethlehem, was sent to earth for all of them… and for us. Jesus, though innocent, bore the pain and violence of all the world. And we must do the same. We must not run from the work of Christmas. We must not run from the Herods of the world. We must do what we can, when we can, as often as we can, to protect the innocent.
You might have noticed the painting on the front cover of the Order of Worship. It is a powerful portrait of a mother clutching her child, hiding in terror. The painting is called “Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents,” and it was painted by the Parisian painter, Léon Cogniet in 1824. Many think it’s the greatest of Christmas paintings, while others are convinced it is one of the most haunting and troubling pieces of Christmas artwork. As you can see, a terrified mother cowers in a hidden and darkened corner, attempting to muffle the cries of her small child, while the chaos and violence and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem rages all around her.
But Cogniet focuses our attention on a single, petrified woman, a mother who knows she is about to lose her child to the terrible massacre. She wraps her arms around her doomed child, her bare feet exposed, revealing how vulnerable she and her baby are as there is no way to run on naked feet. She is cornered and alone.
But Cogniet, unlike other artists, leaves the violence in the background of this painting. He does so in order to draw our attention to the woman’s terrified face, her panicked face, a face that is filled with fear and with questions, a face staring in horror, a face that is staring right back at us! Cogniet made the woman look at us! And so, we become a part of the empire watching on. We become a party to the massacre of the innocents. We are implicated in the reaction of the mother in this painting. We are in the painting! So, who will we be? Will we be the death dealing empire or will we protect the innocent?
The work of Christmas continues this day and every day because after the angels have returned to heaven, the shepherds have gone home, and the inn gains vacancy again, we find that joy to the world was indeed followed with evil and violence. You see, the “birth of Christ also released a malignant force, the unbridled power of empire, the jealous strength of a threatened monarch, meted out upon the most vulnerable of all people.” And it won’t be the last time. Violence will continue. Empires will clash. Children will always be victimized. And mothers will still cradle their doomed babies, hiding from the pain and problems of a broken society. But Jesus came anyway and Jesus comes to us today.
And so, this Christmas, as we remember the Magi, the shepherds, the swaddled baby in a manger, let us also remember the mother and child, huddled in a darkened corner on the streets of Bethlehem. Let us remember that in order to protect the innocent we must be followers of Christ who no longer side with the empire, but comfort the terrified, join with the poor and lowly, and do the hard work of Christmas, this day and every day, all year long.