It’s probably not what we want to hear on Christmas Morning, that last section of Matthew’s narrative about Jesus birth, that ends with Christmas mourning, the inconsolable cry of the mother’s of Bethlehem weeping for their dead children as Herod has them butchered because he is scared of the child the magi had told him of. Compared with Herod’s other brutal massacres the death of a relatively small number of small children in a small rural town does not even rate a mention in the history books. But you get a sense of its devastation on the women of the town.
At Christmas we are more used to the joy-filled carols; that reflect the rich and wonderful songs in Luke’s gospel: Mary’s song at finding out that what she has been told of being pregnant by the Holy Spirit is true; what we call the Magnificat. Zechariah’s anthem, deep in the tradition of the psalm’s speaking of God’s long looked for salvation, as he celebrates the birth of his son, John, who we know as John the Baptist. The angel choir proclaiming ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’. I think of that as the greatest production number ever, vast armies of angels, singing to a very select audience, but not the rich insiders who can afford to watch for their entertainment, rather the poor outsiders for whom it is good news of their inclusion…But Matthew’s Christmas music is wailing and lament, funeral dirge and the blues.
Matthew paints us a picture of Christmas which has more in common with the warn torn regions of our world today; full of violence, with the death of innocents, the wail of the bereft, the desperate plight of refugees, the powerful enforcing their will at gun point, than it does with the idyllic and romanticised nativity display we are used to on hallmark cards.
Now I don’t want to come across all ‘grinch-ey’ like I’m trying to steal your Christmas joy, I’m not… I’m not being all Ebenezer Scrooge and wanting to impose a ‘bah-humbug’ to dampen our festivities…Far from it… You see…the gritty, brutal, reality of Matthew’s narrative and its Christmas mourning, highlights the wonder and joy and beauty of Christmas morning… Because the Christ Child, Jesus, is real hope, come in a real person, in the midst of real life. That’s really…good news…
Amid the bleakness of what’s going on, there is this reoccurring formula, that Matthew uses, telling us that things were done in order to fulfil the scriptures. The place of Jesus birth, his having to flee to Egypt, even the wailing of the women in Bethlehem. Herod may seem to have all the power in this story and be able to impose his will, but even in the face of that God’s plans and purposes are in actual fact not thwarted. That gives us hope even in the darkness, God is at work.
While it does not sooth the anguish of those Bethlehem mothers, Matthew’s quote from Jeremiah 31:15, comes from the darkest point in Israel’s history, and uses the image of Racheal, Isaac’s son who died giving birth to Benjamin and who was buried near Ramah, crying as the exiles are taken away to Babylon. It is as if this is the end of the story for her off spring. But the verses that follow that speak of an end to mourning because God will bring them back. On a larger scale there is hope and good news in this Christmas grieving, because in the Christmas dawn God is bringing his salvation for Israel, just as he had done in the exile.
NT Wright says “This is how Israel’s redeemer will appear, this is how God would set about liberating his people and bringing justice to the world.” The hope is even in the face of the darkest of our inhumanity God is working out his plans and purposes, to bring change, to bring new life. In Christ to bring his kingdom and his reign. There is here a shadow of the cross, at Christ’s birth, even the cross and death itself will not thwart God’s plan and purpose, Christ’s death becomes the way in which you and are forgiven and welcomed back into the Kingdom of God… it is the way in which through Christ being raised to life again that we are able to know new and abundant life.
More than that Christmas morning is good news for Christmas mourning, because of the abiding presence of God with us … We are told in Matthew chapter 1 that Jesus, is the fulfilment, there is that formula again, of the prophecy in Isaiah, that a virgin will give birth and the child will be called Immanuel… which means God with us… and in Matthew God steps into our world with all its difficulty and strife, it’s pain and its anguish… AS NT Wright puts it…
‘No Point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery,
no point having an easy life when the world suffers violence and injustice.
If he is to be Immanuel, God with us,
he must be with us where the pain is.”
God comes, and God identifies with the poor and the lowly, the refugee, those who fear violent oppression. God is with us in the realities of life…
Jesus last recorded words in Matthew’s Gospel are “I am with you to the end of the age”, an assurance because of Jesus birth, life, death and his resurrection of God’s continuing Immanuel, God’s abiding presence with us, by the Holy Spirit. The hope of God with us, in the midst of ordinary life, when there are good and joyful times, but also in the midst of our pain and our sorrow, our suffering and struggles. On a personal level and in a world which is still plagued by people like Herod. That presence of God even in the darkest of times is what gives us hope.
Maybe this Christmas morning you have some Christmas mourning… Christmas for many can be sorrow tinged… it maybe part of that year of firsts after the death of a loved one, you may have Christmas mourning because of the spectre of health issues, financial difficulties, relationships breaking down, uncertainty, and the Christmas hope is that in Christ, God is with us…. God is for us…
There is one other source of hope and good news from this final part of Matthew’s Christmas story. Jesus identification with the difficulty of the world, the powerless and the refugee actually invites us to follow him, Matt Woodley says “ For Matthew the Christmas story is a dangerous tale. And once we agree to join with Jesus we embark on a dangerous path. It forces us to side with Jesus and his little ones, rather than Herod with all his pomp and brutality.” We become the carriers of the hope and love and new life of Christmas morning into the sorrow filled and dark places, with Christ and in Christ.
I simply want to finish with the wonderful metaphor from the prologue to John’s gospel. Where in the midst of a cosmic creation size explanation of Jesus origins, John says that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not put it out. The light has come in Christ, Christmas dawns in the midst of sorrow and suffering, the light remains with us, it draws us back into relationship with God and shows us the way to live, and the light shines out from us with the hope of a Christ dawning in the midst of a world that is in the darkness of pain and mourning.