Happy New Year! Today is the first Sunday of Christmas in our liturgical calendar and the first day of 2017 in our common calendar. And what a way to begin with this text from Matthew that is often referred to as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” It’s very incongruous with the festive season that we’ve been celebrating and is certainly jarring from the seemingly peaceful, serene and joyful nativity story. It’s a difficult reckoning and it’s hard to hold these stories together. We want to hold on to the Silent Night and the Joy to the World and stay there a bit longer, if not forever. We want to gaze at the adorable baby, Mary the new mother and Joseph the doting stepfather. All is calm, all is bright. God has come to dwell with us and now everything is perfect.
Except it’s not. If you’ve had babies, or know someone who has, you know that the first few days of parenthood are chaotic and you feel like you’re barely holding it together. Lack of sleep, constant worry, crying (and that’s the parents!) can all weave together to raise the anxiety of the most laid back people. And then life happens on top of the stresses of a newborn. Joseph is warned in a dream by God that Herod is out to kill this new baby out of fear of being usurped off his throne and they must run. Now.
Herod declared that all baby boys under two were to be killed in Bethlehem just to be certain that he could hold on to his power and his kingdom. Bethlehem was a small village and so historians estimate that it would have meant that less than 20 babies were executed. There is no historical record of this massacre and the relatively small numbers are probably why. Plus, they were more than likely babies of peasants, and some lives mattered more than others in the Roman Empire. Those 20 or so baby boys’ deaths didn’t register as something important to document. But Matthew knew that those babies mattered to their families and to God and wrote it down and we remember those babies today. We hold together the tension of the Christmas season of the good and joyful news that God is indeed with us, coming to us in a baby, with the reality that suffering is still happening and not all babies are safe. Jesus’ birth reveals God’s promise to be with us not just in our joyful times but in our sorrowful and fearful times, as well. It can be difficult to hold all of those emotions together.
Joseph and Mary had to hold it together as they fled to refuge in a foreign land, a land where their ancestors had once been slaves, Egypt. The incongruity of being refugees to a country who had once committed genocide on their own people had to have been difficult to hold together. We don’t know much about their time in Egypt, but we can assume that their new neighbors welcomed them and kept them safe on some level. I imagine some older women willing to help with baby Jesus and reassuring Mary that she was doing an excellent job of mothering in these early months. The Holy Family had to have relied on the community around them in this stressful time. God’s presence must have been palpable for Mary, Joseph and Jesus through their new neighbors as they made their home in a different culture, with a different language, different food and a different landscape.
It’s difficult to hold all of this together. We hold together the innocence of the manger scene of the Holy Family, Jesus’ birth heralded by an angelic choir, and the baby Messiah adored by shepherds and magi with the reality of innocence all to quickly lost to tyrants, loss of homeland, babies being killed, fear of your baby being killed, and lack of power to control life around you. Holding together the joy of the newborn king, who came to proclaim God’s promises in the world for all people, for all time and the knowledge that we still live in a broken world.
We hold this together ourselves each day. I don’t think that 2016 was necessarily a year worse than any other, I think in the age of global media and social media, we are more aware. This awareness makes it more imperative that we hold together the promises of God with the violence, fear, pain and sorrow we witness all around us in the world. We lament the 20 babies Herod slaughtered and we lament the 50,000 children slaughtered in Syria this year, the 35 people killed in Istanbul overnight, the lives lost in Orlando, Dallas, Nice, Berlin, Chicago, and unfortunately the list can go on and on. We hold together the reality that God is our true king in whose image we and all people are created, with the prayer for just leaders in our country and in every country. We hold together the fear of scarcity of power and resources in our lives with the truth that in Christ there is enough for all people to not only survive, but to thrive. We hold together that sickness and death are part of our earthly experience with the promises of God for wholeness, eternal life and love.
We have a lot to hold together as we enter 2017. I think we had a lot to hold together as we entered 2016. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus had a lot to hold together in those early years as refugees in a foreign land and then with the realization that they could never really go home again but had to start over in a backwater town of the Roman Empire. It may seem that we do have a lot to hold together: but you see, this is where the promises of God jump in, shake us out of despair and buoy us with hope, real hope, not the false hope the world tells us of figuring life out on our own, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and if we only believe and do the right thing, then we’ll be fine. No, we cling to the hope that is found in God: God who will do anything to be with us, who will never leave us no matter what we do, say or think. God who became flesh, in solidarity with us. God holds together our humanity and the truth of God’s kingdom that not even death has the final say. You see, we don’t hold it together, God does! God holds us together in God’s own hand. God binds us to one another in love, peace and hope so that together we share these truths each other because on any given day we all feel like we are barely holding it together.
Matthew quickly pulls us from the serenity of the manger scene because we need to be reminded of the reality of God holding us through our entire lives. God who holds together our joy with our fear, our wonder with our reality, and our simplicity with our complexity. Matthew knows that for his readers, including us, Immanuel, God with us, is not naiveté, is not about someday by and by, but is about today whether the year is 17 AD or 2017 AD. It’s about God who gets in the trenches with us, knows what it is to be afraid, dirty, hungry, despised, hurt, and on the run. It’s right here, right now holding together the truth that God is really present! Do you see God at work in the world? Do you see God at work in you, and in your neighbor? Do you see God holding us all together as redeemed and beloved? Do you see God holding us all together for the sake of comforting the hurting and proclaiming God’s love? I do. I see you. I see God’s love in each of you, my neighbors. I see God at work in my refugee neighbor, my immigrant neighbor, my neighbor of color, my differently abled neighbor, my neighbor of a different faith, my homeless neighbor, my LBGTQ neighbor, my rich neighbor, my poor neighbor: all of my neighbors and all of God’s children. I see God at work. God’s got us, holding us together today, this year and forever. Thanks be to God and Happy New Year!