First Sunday After Christmas
We find ourselves on the fifth day of Christmas, and it seems that the glamour of the holiday season is beginning to fade a little bit. We made the decision to keep all of our decorations up for another week, but you can just tell that everything in our sanctuary is not as fresh as it was on Christmas Eve. The Advent candles look as though they’re past their prime and are ready to be thrown out, and the poinsettias are about wilted to the point of no return. If you look down at your pew, there’s a solid chance that there’s some candle wax hardened on the cushion from “Silent Night.”
At home, all of the gifts have been torn open and the wrapping paper is already in the dumpster. There’s a good chance you’ve had the conversation about when to take down the Christmas decorations and throw the tree to the curb. Out in the city, the tree at Rockefeller Center looks as worn down as I feel. Stores have taken down all of their decorations and stowed away their Christmas merchandise, they’ve stopped their holiday music playlists, and there are some that are already putting out candy for Valentine’s Day.
All around, it seems, the glamour and mystique of this holiday season is already starting to fade. The anticipation of the Advent season, the beauty of Christmas Eve, and the excitement of Christmas morning takes its toll, and, if you’re like me, your Christmas spirit is fading just like everything else in this city.
Because what we so often yearn for during this Christmas season is just a little bit of rest. We want to rest with the manger scene a little while longer, to sit with the hope of “O Holy Night” and the peace of “Silent Night.” We want the chance to cherish those feelings of hope, of love, of joy, and of peace, to give time for our Christmas cheer to develop after we’ve waited all year for it, and to revel in the magic of the season for just a little while. We want to believe—if only for a little while—that all is right in the world because Jesus has been born; that God is with us.
Yet even in our scriptures, we find that this isn’t the case. We’ve heard the story of Mary and Joseph trying to find room in the inn, of Jesus being born in that manger. We know the story of the shepherds encountering the angel in the field, being told that their savior has been born. We know the story of the magi from the East, who follow the star in the sky to a stable in Bethlehem, in which is lying the “King of the Jews.” Yet immediately after the magi leave, we are told in today’s passage what happens next.
An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, for Herod was seeking to kill this child. Sure enough, Herod realizes that the magi tricked him by not telling him where they found this child. He knew enough to know when the baby would have been born, however, and orders that all children under the age of two years old were to be killed. Jesus is spared, but countless other children were not. We hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
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.
What a drastic change the Christmas story takes. It only appears in our lectionary every three years, but other churches yearly observe the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a constant reminder of this widespread slaughter. Karen Oliveto, bishop of the Mountain Sky Conference of the United Methodist Church, has stated that while scholars have called this story the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it should also perhaps be named the “Ending of Innocence.” It’s a sharp reminder of how this world actually works; that all is not calm and all is not bright. It’s a wake-up call of sorts for us who wish to hold on to a domesticated picture of Christmas by poignantly reminding us of the world that Jesus was born into. It ends our supposed innocence with what’s happening in the world so that we can see clearly where it is that our world is broken and in deep need of God’s justice and healing love.
It forces us to recognize that Holy Family we celebrated here on Christmas Eve as the very same family that is fleeing genocide as refugees, then in turn identifying families of today that have left home because of violence. It calls us to hear how many children were slaughtered because of King Herod’s fear and in turn reflect on what is happening to children right now on our borders and around the world who are being persecuted by those who rule from that same fear. It beckons us to see the Christ child not only as the precious newborn but as a scared toddler, in turn seeing Christ in those same children who are waking up this morning terrified about what this day is going to bring.
And this ending of innocence demands that we start the hard work of re-conceiving our ideas about what this Christmas season is about.
For the shepherds did not stay at the manger forever; they had to go back to tend to their flocks. The star of Bethlehem did not stay in the sky forever; it moved on. The magi went home, and the angels eventually stopped singing in the fields. Jesus did not stay in the manger for very long.
Yet still God had taken on flesh and dwelled among them.
And so too is it for us.
The poinsettias will wither, and the Christmas trees in our homes will be thrown to the curb. The world will move on from this holiday season into the next holiday, and all of the Christmas decorations will be stored away. Our Christmas spirit and holiday cheer will fade away.
Yet still Jesus Christ has been born. Still God is with us.
Our holy work during the Christmas season does not end when our warm and fuzzy feelings end; the Christmas story is not concluded when we reach Epiphany. No, the story is still being written over 2,000 years later. God is still beckoning us towards Christ. Christ is still beckoning us towards the hungry, towards the lonely, towards the poor, and towards the oppressed. Still the Spirit is beckoning us to a life of hope, of love, of joy, and of peace. Still Jesus is being born within and among us.
Thanks be to God.