5 Jan 2014
“‘Herod is going to search for the child to destroy Him.’” (Matt. 2:13) In the name …
Today we read in the Gospel that King Herod was ready to destroy the children of Bethlehem. And as reasonable as that may sound to a lot of parents by now, the last time our kids were in school was on December 20th, 16 long, long days ago, we need to know that Matthew is telling us a story about an evil man. Today we stand at the threshold of the Feast of Epiphany. The focus of our Christmas story is shifting. The shepherds, angel and the manger here in front of me are Luke’s story. But those three Wise Men over there to the East are quickly approaching. Now we’re about to hear Matthew’s Christmas story. And the two simply do not fit together. Matthew has no story of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Instead, it sure seems like Bethlehem is their hometown. Since it’s their hometown, they’re not found in a manger, they’re living in a house. And according to this morning’s Gospel, we learn that Herod heard from the Magi that they had been following the Bethlehem Star for about two years. That’s the source for the cartoon found in your bulletin: One wise man says to another who looks bewildered as he gazes at a map: “Gold, frankincense and myrrh and you couldn’t spring for a GPS?” But again, this distracts us from the fact that Matthew is telling us a story of an evil man.
I really don’t know if the slaughter of the Holy Innocents happened, but I do know that there is reason for the story to be told as part of Christmas. Whether the actual event is real is not as important as the Gospel’s message that even in a world made sacred by the birth of Christ there is still the reality of evil. The only record we have of the massacre of the baby boys of Bethlehem is from today’s Gospel selection, but the record of Herod’s cruelty is much better documented. The ancient historian Josephus tells us that Herod murdered his predecessors and their supporters so that his kingship couldn’t be challenged. Then once in power he murdered the rest of his own family so there would be no succession questions, and to top it off he even murdered his brother-in-law, mother-in-law and his favourite wife. Still not satisfied, he offed his three eldest sons. There are records, as well, that he ordered the elimination of political suspects and their families on at least four separate occasions. And importantly for our story today, one of those purges was in response to a prediction that his dynasty was to lose the throne. In other words, it would not have been out of character for Herod to wipe-out a village worth of babies in order to protect his crown from the newborn King of the Jews.
The God who was able to announce the birth of His Son with a star in the heavens could not stop Herod from trying to kill the child. The God who sent an angel to Joseph warning him to take the Holy Family to Egypt could not stop Herod from uselessly murdering all of those innocent babies in Bethlehem. Now strangers to the faith may hear this and declare God to be powerless. Why bother worshipping such a God as this? But Matthew believes, and Matthew is the one telling the story. But why? Because he wants to let us know that even Jesus, the one acknowledged by the Wise Men as the King of the Jews, their gifts of gold and frankincense testifying to the royalty and divinity of this child, that even He could not be protected from the evil invented in the human heart. Since Matthew is speaking for the faith and from faith, this isn’t a statement about God’s powerlessness. It is a revelation that God will not prevent us from choosing to be evil.
God comes into the world in Jesus. This is the perfect testimony that creation is sacred in God’s eyes. It is testimony to what we can be. God became one of us to show that we can become like God. But that’s impossible if God makes the decisions for us. If God were to step-in and miraculously stop any of us from doing anything evil, then God could be praised for His morality, but we would be nothing but puppets on a string. We could never become like God. The freedom to choose what is right and noble is only right and noble if we have the real choice to choose the opposite. As surprising as it may sound, morality is only possible when immorality is a choice. Virtue is only possible when evil is real. Even in the wondrously miraculous story of Christmas, Matthew wants us to know this reality. Otherwise, the Bible’s Christmas can be put away with all the other decorations after a few weeks of noisy celebration.
So now we can return to the question of strangers to the faith who wonder why we should bother wasting our time with such a God, a God who won’t force everything to go our way. The reason is the same as Luke’s Christmas story. The stories differ, but the message is the same. It is the message that in a world entrusted to us by God, since God can’t do it for us, then God will stand beside us. No matter how many Herods there may be, Jesus, ever since Christmas, is always beside us. A couple of minutes ago I mentioned two of the three gifts of the Magi. The one I left out was myrrh, the burial spice, the prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. I don’t think atonement is understood by starting at the cross. I think it’s better understood through the whole life of Jesus, and then it’s not so much atonement for sins, but rather at-one-ment with us. It is Jesus being at-one with us throughout life, the good moments and the Herod-moments.
We’re only five days into the New Year and I guarantee some resolutions have already been broken. The statistical success rate of New Year’s resolution is only 8%. This is why on the Sunday after the New Year the church wears red, the liturgical colour of the Holy Spirit, of God’s presence among us. We’re not expected to do it alone. God can’t do it for us, but Christmas is the revelation that we can do it with Him. There will always be the world’s Herods, but there will always be Jesus’ at-one-ment. May He inspire us to be better when we can, and may we find our strength in Him when we are at our weakest and we can’t. For this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo