Today we are looking at the readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (Sunday, December 29, 2019). The lectionary readings are Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; and Matthew 2:13-23. There is often a temptation not to preach on this Sunday at all; instead, to have a service of Lessons and Carols with no preaching. I’ve done that myself several years. That temptation may not be as strong this year, with this Sunday happening four days after Christmas Day. Nonetheless, I understand completely why someone might choose not to preach today. And I certainly understand why someone might choose not to preach on the gospel reading.
I mean, come on. The designers of the Revised Common Lectionary certainly made it hard on us this week. Just a few days into the Christmas season, and we’re faced with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Christmas is supposed to be about light shining in the darkness, and here we are, facing one of the darkest moments recorded in scripture. And there is no hope on the surface whatsoever. On the surface, what does this look like?
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”Matthew 2:16-18, New Revised Standard Version
On the surface, here’s what’s I see going on. God sent the Messiah to be born of Mary, to bring hope and peace and salvation to all people. But in the process, God seems to have caused more suffering in the short run. Follow the causation here:
- Because Jesus was born, the wise men saw the star.
- Because they saw the star, they came to Jerusalem.
- Because they came to Jerusalem, Herod got scared of this new king.
- Because Herod got scared, he lashed out in anger.
- Because Herod lashed out in anger, all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under were killed.
- So, if Jesus hadn’t been born, and if he hadn’t been born in Bethlehem, those children would have been alive.
And that’s why I think that this is one of those readings that you can’t just read and then leave on the table. As much as nobody wants to hear about this story during the Christmas season, if we read it, we’ve got to preach on it. Because there may be somebody in the pews for whom this reading is like a dagger through the heart. The loss of a child is a terrible trauma, and people whose children die go through a type of grief that the rest of us can’t really comprehend. Burying your child is not the same as burying a parent or grandparent. Burying a child cuts in a different way, perhaps deeper. I know of a psychologist who calls the death of a child an “out-of-order death.” Anyone dying at a young age is an “out-of-order death,” and it’s different. And people say such terrible and stupid things to parents who grieve. They say things like, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” Or they say, “At least you still have two other kids.” Or they say, “You’re still young. You can have more kids.” Or they say, “Everything happens for a reason. This will make you stronger.”
We have to counter those messages, those messages that sound like the surface reading of this text itself, the message that God has a really big plan to carry out, and sometimes kids die as part of that plan. We have to tell people clearly, with no caveats, that it is not God’s will that children die. We have to find a way to talk about this story in Matthew that stands in the face of that lie.
But to be honest, I’m not a hundred percent sure how to do that. This is a hard, hard reading. Maybe it’s something like, “God’s love doesn’t take all the pain out of life. Even Jesus’ birth didn’t take the pain out of the world in that time.” Maybe it’s something like, “This didn’t happen because Jesus was born. On the contrary, Jesus was born because horrible things like this happen.” Maybe it’s something like, “I don’t know what to say about this. Just like I don’t know what to say about childhood deaths today. Let’s sit in silence for a moment, remembering the suffering that these people endured, and the suffering that people endure today.”
While I can’t be sure why Matthew included this in his gospel, I do appreciate one thing he did. He witnessed the suffering of the parents of Bethlehem. He witnessed it, and mentioned it, and did not minimize it. He quoted Jeremiah, and said, “Thus was fulfilled.” In fact, this is unique in Matthew. Matthew talks about the fulfillment of prophecy all the time, but usually he says, “This took place in order to fulfill the prophecy.” Not here. Here he simply says, “Thus was fulfilled.” Matthew doesn’t know why this had to happen either. But he recognizes it, witnesses and honors their pain. Maybe that’s the best we can do as well. Doesn’t sound like a very Christmassy message, but then again, maybe there are people in your pews who really need to hear that today.
So this post wasn’t particularly about mental illness. But people who have suffered the loss of a child are living with a trauma that cuts so deep, they might as well have PTSD or depression or something else. I hope these reflections were helpful.
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