How quickly we are reminded that Christmas doesn’t remain a “silent night, holy night” within the quiet “little town of Bethlehem.” I am currently sitting at home and it’s three days after Christmas. Many stockings were hung by chimneys with care. Santa Claus has come and gone for yet another year. We have eaten sweets and exchanged gifts and gorged on good food to our heart’s content. I would even go so far as to wager that now, for many, begins that awkward time with family where the excitement of the season has worn thin and there are still a few days of visiting left and family members are beginning to wear on the patience of each other. It seems to not take us long before we make that knee-jerk transition into what makes us resent the season of Christmas all too often-an over exposure to the facade that there might actually be “peace on earth” and “good will towards all people” and the reintroduction to the reality of a world that is not able to create such an existence.
And yet, by the grace of God, the Revised Common Lectionary reminds us that we are prone to such a transition by placing texts for December 28 on a day called “Holy Innocents.” Here we are taken through the chaos that ensues after the peaceful scene of the manger and nativity. The Magi have come and gone and the days of gold, frankincense, and myrrh do not last for long. The songs of the angels are but faint whispers in our memory and the shepherds have gone back to work because everyone knows you can’t take longer than a 3-Day weekend off work to celebrate the holidays. This is why I think this story (quite possibly more than the manger scene) is very telling of both us and the very nature of our salvation through this child.
There is significance with the geographic shift we are taken on in these 10 verses. Mark Allan Powell reminds us that we are quickly taken on a journey from Bethlehem to Egypt and then from Egypt to Galilee and, more specifically, Nazareth. This is not to imply something as simplistic as highlighting Jesus was a kid who moved a few times growing up. There is something deeper here. We are taken on a journey to help illumine to us the type of Messiah this will be. This Savior is one who not only seeks to identify with the poor-he IS the poor. And this is illustrated very clearly in his eventual landing in the poor region of Nazareth-an area regarded only slightly better than Samaritan regions.
A common misunderstanding of Western culture is that we often want to go only so far as to say that Jesus had a special place in his heart for poor and forgotten people of his day. After all, Jesus himself couldn’t be poor and forgotten-he was the Messiah for God’s sake. Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us that there is something both special and often uncomfortable about this Jesus who was both Messiah for all AND poor and forgotten among his people. I would argue this goes way beyond some sentimental affinity for poor people-Jesus WAS poor.
And this, I believe, is where our disconnect with this story begins. We would love to leave Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem. We would love for Christmas to last a couple weeks past its designated day. We would love to believe there might actually be peace on earth and love for all people and that we have no enemies in this world. But then we are reminded when we turn the news on that war and famine are still very present in our world. We are reminded that sometimes we really don’t like the very people we are supposed to love. We are reminded that Christmas really won’t ever be that silent and holy night we work and stress so hard to create year after year only to be let down when we fall short. Life is not pretty. People don’t always get along. Sometimes the line between friends and enemies is so thin we don’t always know where one begins and the other ends. And we are left to wonder what could ever change the inevitable?
And then we find ourselves in the middle of the Christmas story here in Matthew-the actual Christmas story. This is the story Normal Rockwell never painted. It is the story of mayhem and chaos and the genocide of children. All of a sudden we are in the middle of this story and we realize it is not that much different than our own. Stress and chaos do seem to rule the day. Heartache and hurt are present even as we sing carols and pretend all the world is at its best. It is in such a world, and not in the quaint snow covered manger we depict in cards, that the Christ child comes to us. It is there the very Love of God invades our world, not as something we might idealize as great but rather as something a little closer to reality-a defenseless baby born to a refugee family to a mother who bears a child out of wedlock and a step father who was willing to marry despite the shame of the law. They have no friends and they spend those wonderful years of a baby’s first words and steps on the run from a king looking to kill him. It is here, both in the biblical story and ours, that we are faced with the notion that salvation comes from a most peculiar God who chooses to save in the most peculiar of ways. But maybe, just maybe, the only salvation that can truly save will do so through this most unexpected way?
And this is our Christmas hope. Not that we can roast a few more chestnuts or even sing of peace on earth for a few more days. Our reality tells us life is much too different from that. Our hope is in a God who doesn’t come to our Christmas fantasies but who would rather come to our Christmas realities-one in which we truly know just how much we need to be saved.