January 4, 2015
HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2; 1-15, 19-23
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do chroniclers. What to do about Jesus, who bursts on the scene during the ministry of John the Baptist? Who is he? Where does he come from? Mark and John, in their accounts of the life of Jesus do not try to fill in the biographical blanks. John gives us a theological interpretation of who Jesus is, but does not address his birth or upbringing. Mark and John begin their accounts with John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke do try and fill in the blanks. Unfortunately their narratives are not in sync one with another.
In Luke’s narrative Joseph and Mary come from Nazareth to Bethlehem because a census ordered by a Roman Governor requires that everyone be counted in their hometown. In Matthews account, Joseph and Mary are resident in Bethlehem-the wise men from the east find them living in a house. In Luke’s account, there is no room at the inn and the baby is born in a stable and laid in a manger. Both Evangelists offer genealogies of Jesus. The genealogies do not agree, not even with regard to the name of the father of Joseph. For Luke he is the son of Heli, the son of Matthat. For Mathew he is the son of Matthan the son of Eleazar
In Luke’s account, the baby is circumcised and named on the eighth day. On the fortieth day, after the purification of the Blessed Virgin as required under Mosaic Law, he is brought to the temple in Jerusalem and presented to the Lord. Since he is a first-born, a sacrifice is made on his behalf of two young doves. Two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna bless the child and rejoice in him as the fulfillment of the promises of God. After this, the family and baby return to Nazareth in Galilee. There are no raging despots seeking Jesus’ life in this account. Herod the Great is king at the time these events take place, but the baby does not come to his attention.
We next get a glimpse of Jesus from Luke at the age of twelve. He comes with his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. When they return to Nazareth, Jesus stays on in the Temple without his parents’ knowledge. When his parents realize he is missing, they return to Jerusalem and find him in the Temple listening to the doctors and asking them questions. Amazing? Miraculous? Hard to believe? Maybe not. We can assume that, like any other Jewish boy, he would have learned to read and write Hebrew in the synagogue in Nazareth. Literacy in Hebrew was required of men, and male children were taught to read and write Hebrew in the synagogues. At puberty he would have been accepted as an adult in the congregation, and allowed to lead prayers and read the scripture scrolls kept in the synagogue. He is now Bar Mitzvah. Is it plausible for a very bright boy to stay on in Jerusalem to talk to the experts in the Law? Remember that in religious terms he is already an adult. Is Jesus feeling a call? What do you think? After this anecdote we hear nothing from Luke, until Jesus comes to John to be baptized.
The account given by Matthew is much more dramatic. Wise men, probably Zoroastrian priests, come from Persia looking for the child born King of the Jews. The King of Judea, Herod the Great hears of this, sends for and speaks with the wise men. Herod’s experts say the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and Herod conveys this to the wise men. He also asks that they report to him where this child is. The wise men of course find the child, kneel down and pay him homage. They also give him gifts laden with symbolic meaning: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divine filiation, and myrrh as a portent of his death and burial. Being warned by God in a dream, they depart to their country by another route and do not report back to Herod. Joseph also is warned in a dream to rise and flee to Egypt with the child and his mother. Herod, realizing he has been outwitted, orders the murder of all male children two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings.
The history books offer no corroborating evidence for a large infanticide ordered by King Herod. Some scholars have argued that the number of male infants two and under in the small town of Bethlehem might have been as few as twenty, and that therefore the massacre would perhaps have gone unnoticed and unreported, except by Matthew. What the history books do tell us is that Herod was a ruthless and brutal despot who killed with no compunction. As he aged, he saw plots everywhere around him. He killed his wife Mariamne-he also killed her mother. He had three of his son’s executed for conspiring against him. One son, Antipater, his first-born, was put to death just five days before his father died in 4 B.C. The Emperor Augustus Caesar, whose permission was needed for the sons to be put to death quipped “It’s better to be Herod’s pig than his son”. Indeed.
According to Matthew’s account, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus sojourned in Egypt until Herod died. When he was dead, an angel told Joseph that it was safe to return to Israel. However Joseph was afraid of Archelaus, the son of Herod who initially ruled over southern Israel. Again he was warned by God in a dream, and therefore he went north to Galilee and settled in Nazareth which was ruled by Herod Antipas, also a son of Herod the Great.
One thing we need to realize about Matthew is that he is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience. He makes a great effort to relate everything and anything in his account of Jesus’ life to Old Testament writing. Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy from Micah 5:2a: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel”. When the babies are slaughtered the prophesy of 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” is said to be fulfilled. Never mind that Jeremiah was talking about the deportation of the northern tribes of Israel by the Assyrians, and never mind that his prophesy ends with their return and restoration. The flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt is so that the words of the Prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son” can be fulfilled. Never mind that Hosea was talking about the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.
What are we to make of these two wildly different accounts of Jesus’ birth, infancy and childhood? Whatever the discrepancies in their accounts, both Luke and Matthew endeavor to show us that Jesus is no ordinary child. There are cosmic signs and portents in both accounts which tell us that something extraordinary is happening. The shepherds in Luke’s account hear from the angels that a savior has been born. They hear the heavenly multitude singing. Once the angels go back into heaven they hasten to Bethlehem to worship the child who is housed in a stable, and laid in a manger.
The wise men from the East in Matthew’s account come following a star. The star is a great sign to these men who are astrologers, though we may well ask the question: “Why should they care about a new-born king of the Jews?” Their coming nonetheless indicates to us that what has occurred has significance beyond the borders of Judea. Their gifts to the newborn child tell us that he is a king, that he is divine, and that he will die and be entombed. Matthew’s account is full of symbolic meaning, and popular imagination has taken the narrative and reworked it, so that there are three kings, not wise men, and they represent the races of humanity-one is on a horse, one is on a one-humped camel, and one is on a two humped camel, so the one on horseback is from Europe, the one riding the dromedary is from the Middle East, and the one riding the Bactrian camel is from the areas bordering China.
And as for the sojourn in Egypt, it is very much a part of Coptic Christianity’s beliefs. Egyptian Christians, or Copts, treasure the account of the sojourn in Egypt. Churches along the Nile are said to be built at places where the Virgin Mary sat down to rest, or in places where she stayed. There are maps which show the itinerary of the Holy Family during their stay in Egypt. They travelled into Upper Egypt, as far as Assiut according to these maps. That is about 1300 kilometers upstream from the Nile delta.
In the Assiut area there are Coptic churches and monasteries and their festivals, often in honor of the Virgin Mary, can attract 50,000 and more devout Christians. I once commented to a Copt that there must have been large Jewish communities in Upper Egypt for the Holy Family to have gone there. I got a death stare for my pains because the Coptic Church is deeply anti-Jewish. That Mary, Joseph and Jesus were observant Jews is unfathomable.
The narrative of the sojourn in Egypt has of course been elaborated on and embroidered by Egyptian Christians. More importantly it has also made them feel like stakeholders in the narrative. “The Holy Family lived here among us” is what they might feel. You and I can’t say that, but they can, based on Matthews account. This brings us to the crux of this homily-the birth narratives, inconsistent with each other though they might be, are important building blocks in the edifice of our faith, both canonical and folk. If you believe that the magi were three kings, then you might also believe that the skulls in the cathedral in Cologne are theirs. If you can believe that, then important actors in Matthew’s birth narrative are not buried in Persia, or the Orient, but right there in Germany, along the Rhine, in Europe, where we might go of a summer.
If we return to the pregnancy and infancy narratives of Luke, when Mary visits Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth says to Mary (King James Version)”Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”. I know, we Episcopalians don´t usually say the Hail Mary, but look at where it originates and look at how it incorporates the language of Luke’s narrative. Then look at Mary’s response to Elizabeth, Mary’s Songor the Magnificat. Mary praises God for choosing her. In His choice of her she finds that God is on the side of the poor: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty”. So her praise of the Lord is filled with connotations of the Lord favoring the poor and the hungry, and of his overthrowing the powerful and raising up the humble.
In addition to Elizabeth’s greeting and Mary’s song, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist breaks into song upon naming his son John. His song is the Song of Zechariah. At the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, Simeon too breaks into song, saying what we know as The Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis. You cannot have Evening Prayer in the Episcopal or Anglican churches without reciting either the Magnificat or the Nunc Dimittis, or both. These two canticles, together with the Song of Zechariah are an important part of the service of Morning Prayer. Check your Book of Common Prayer and see for yourselves.
The Gospel of Luke in its first two chapters provides us with songs of faith that call forth from us a response of faith and which resonate throughout our liturgy. Never mind the inconsistencies of the narrative. What is important is that Luke marshals a cast of characters whose responses to God, to John the Baptist and to Jesus trigger our own responses of faith. Likewise the Gospel of Matthew calls forth themes which are universal in their significance-the gifts of the wise men are an example. Their appearance also signals that the Jesus event is not a local occurrence, but an event of significance well beyond the borders of Herod’s little kingdom. In closing, I think that the accuracy of the birth and infancy narratives is not what matters. What matters is the response of faith that these narrations trigger in all who hear them. I leave you with that thought.
God Bless you.