Matthew 2 - Epiphany/Holy Innocents
When we bless homes, we remember the magi… maybe because who knows who might come to visit, who might need a shelter, who might suddenly need our hospitality? Here in Minnesota, although we think of ourselves as friendly, we don’t have the same culture of extensive hospitality that exists in some other parts of the world today… and the culture of hospitality that was absolutely necessary in the time of Jesus. If guests arrived, there was not usually an inn nearby… that was for bigger towns and cities… if guests arrived, most likely, they were staying with you. And so there was a culture around taking in guests that was so much deeper than most of us are used to… For Matthew, it is an incredibly important theme that people far beyond the people of Israel, people of all nations, were part of Jesus’ family ancestry and that people from many nations recognized who Jesus was. This was not only an in-house event… this birth was world-changing.
In just the very first chapters, Matthew has told us the genealogy of Jesus that includes Ruth, a Moabite woman. Mary has traveled across country to be with her cousin Elizabeth… taken in as their houseguest for months. And now we hear the story of the magi—people who have traveled from far away, star-gazers, who have come to find a king… Magi, who made the big mistake of traveling to Herod’s palace (because that would be a natural place to find a king), before being redirected to the humble home of Joseph and Mary (a very unusual place to find a king).
This year, I have wondered how the magi felt—those star-gazers who brought gifts, worshiped the young Jesus… but who in the course of their travels unwittingly unleashed terrible violence… because what followed their visit to Herod (and their refusal to go back and inform him of the location of Jesus…) was a slaughter. How did they feel? Did they realize that although their only goal was to honor and bless this child, they unleashed a fury?
We know too many stories like this one as we’ve watched, heard about, and experienced places of trauma and violence this year: Aleppo, Berlin, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Nigeria, Orlando, St. Paul… the horrors God’s beloved children experience are not new and are not over.
In light of these stories from our own days, Matthew’s story of the senseless violence following the birth of Jesus seems all too familiar. Herod, a powerful and paranoid dictator, is worried and angry when he meets the Magi, strange visitors from far out-of-town, who have come to see a king that is not him… he becomes so worried and angry, in fact, that he kills all the children, trying to get rid of that one. It’s a familiar Biblical story because it happened in Moses’ day, too… Leaders tried to kill off the ones who would one day overthrow them… but as we know from any number of books and movies, that approach never works.
Instead, warned by a dream, the family flees. Into the wilderness. In one way, we imagine them as completely alone, refugees fleeing in the dead of night. From another perspective, we know that the whole way, they were accompanied by God, by the angels who warned them to flee, and others trying to escape. They met with hospitality they experience from strangers all along the way to their new, temporary home. There are many art images both of the massacre of the Holy Innocents and of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt—you have one of them on your bulletin cover.
Maybe you’ve heard of a kind of prayer called Lectio Divina—or divine reading—where you read a short Bible passage slowly, listening to each word to hear God’s living word for you today. This morning, I invite you to a practice one of my teachers called Imago Divina… praying with an art image for the same reason, to see and hear God’s living word for you today in this image of the Holy Family’s journey. I’ll begin with some words with the images… then, hopefully the image will begin to speak God’s word for itself.
Do you feel alone, in the wilderness? Are you tired? Maybe there are unexpected oases on the journey… where do you find God providing along the way? Where is there evidence of a being sheltered, even in unfamiliar surroundings? What tragedies or deep sorrows still wait for healing in your life’s journey?
This is a very political story. Today, where is God crying out for justice? For a new way? How did Jesus’ own experience as a refugee in Egypt shape his way of treating foreigners?
John August Swanson, an artist who also painted this story, included his own reflections about what it is like to be uprooted, especially considering those who are migrants, refugees, separated from family because of lack of documents, experiencing persecution.
Swanson says... few people uproot themselves by choice ... Some know where they are going,
confident that a better life awaits them. Others are just fleeing, relieved to be alive.
Many never make it.
Who do you know who is uprooted right now? Is there anything that God calls you to do, calls us to do to extend hospitality in the wilderness?
In his musical piece, L'enfance du Christ (English: The Childhood of Christ), an oratorio by the French composer Hector Berlioz, based on the Holy Family's flight into Egypt,
Berlioz imagined that a stranger sheltered the wandering Hebrews in a strange land. After they were repeatedly denied shelter, finally the father of a family of Ishmaelites (in other words, unbelievers) takes pity on them and invites them into his house.
God continues to build bridges between people and surprise us… who would have thought that God intended to provide for them that way? How is God transforming our stories of who is our neighbor?
Our community experiences get passed on through our story-telling. Story-telling is certainly a most important part of these days of Christmas, these days of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the moment of turning from an old to a new calendar year. Stories are how we interpret our suffering and challenges, how we reinterpret and shape things to move on in life, how we make it through our days, even when it means going to a place we’d never go except with God’s help. Shared stories help us find God’s way into the future together. This is why we tell these stories, and why we need to…
The birth of Christ does not remove the power of evil from our world, but its light gives us hope and direction, gives us ways to respond personally and together, as we walk with all the stories of "holy innocents" today who have suffered. In our gathering around word and meal, God continues the story--to save us, lift us up, and carry us into a new year, a new era, each new day, and the new ways God will call us to offer hospitality and recognize Christ in the stranger, the visitor, people of all nations. God will work wonders, whatever our intentions and whatever unintended consequences come to be. And we’re invited to be listening and watching, imagining and dreaming as God leads us forward.
God is with us, and God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times, offering shelter and sanctuary, but also to bring us to the other side… where there is deep hospitality and a home.