“I’m with you through Christmas,” he said, leaning back in his chair. A friend of mine and I were sitting in the University pub while I was in college, and had gotten into a discussion about Christian faith. He was the son of an Episcopal priest, but from adolescence on had put considerable effort into distancing himself as far as possible from that fact.
“I’ll admit it: Christmas is good stuff. This special baby born who’s going to make things better, people coming together to celebrate, ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all;’ I can get behind all of that.” He smiled, leaned forward, and whispered, “It’s once the baby starts growing up that I have problems.”
I think he was on to something. If you stop with the visit of the Magi, the wise men from the east, you’ve got a beautiful story of love and peace and hope. It’s the perfect story for holiday cards: all those different images of the shepherds on the hillside, gazing from afar at the stable basking in the glow of heavenly light in the middle of the night; the wise men on camels, carrying gifts to lay before the child; the close-up of sheep and cows gathering around the manger as Mary and Joseph gaze lovingly at the infant in the manger; all of them filled with joy and the hope for a better future that this child somehow embodies. It’s a great ending: people from different cultures and different social castes all gathered together to celebrate a moment of peace and common humanity embodied in a newborn baby. You don’t even have to be Christian to appreciate that story and get something from it.
The problem today, of course, is that the story doesn’t end there. What follows doesn’t get put on greeting cards or acted out in pageants: Joseph bolting upright, awakening from his dream, and reaching over to shake Mary; the two of them cramming their few possessions into a sack, his ears alert for sounds of troops moving through the town or voices shouting; Mary bent over the baby, desperately trying to keep him quiet as Joseph leads the donkey bearing the two of them out of the village, both of them looking over their shoulders, perhaps even seeing the torchlights of soldiers beginning to move through the village.
It is a horrible story, and it is very tempting to edit it out of the Christmas narrative, which we usually do for pageants and services of Lessons and Carols. In fact, even the original version of the Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Sunday Scripture readings used by the majority of North American Christians, did just that. Until the Lectionary was revised in the early 1990s, the reading for the Sunday after Christmas during the first year of the cycle, which is today, stopped with Mary and Joseph fleeing town. And, I have to admit, I was tempted to do that myself today, even though the revised version of the Lectionary now assigns the whole passage. Because we can even go comfortably that far into this story.
Yes, from the very beginning, not everybody appreciates the Christmas story; not everybody responds to its hopes and promises with joy. Herod, the puppet king who ruled Judea in collaboration with the Romans, knows that once this baby starts to grow up, he’ll start to have real problems. So he had no intention of simply standing by and letting this child attract a following of malcontents and enemies that could threaten him.
But an angel clues the wise men in to what Herod is doing, and they go back home without returning to tell him what they found, and more importantly, where they found it. That would be a great ending: the wicked king sitting in his palace, waiting to go kill the child, and finally realizing too late that he’s been duped and won’t be able to find Jesus. The wise men get away; Jesus gets away; everybody’s okay. But the story keeps going. Since he can’t eliminate the actual threat, Herod takes the next logical step: he decides to eliminate all the potential threats, which is now every male child under the age of two.
Interestingly enough, there’s no independent historical record of this event. One scholar notes that fact is not surprising: this would hardly have been considered a major event of Herod’s reign, given all the awful things he did. In fact, given the small size of Bethlehem, the number of male children under the age of two would not have been extremely large, perhaps as few as twenty. On a historical level, this incident is barely a footnote amongst the atrocities Herod perpetrated to preserve his reign. For Herod, it’s simply business as usual; it’s how the world works.
Which is why we do need to remember this story, to bring this dark note into the bright music of the Christmas season. Because the truth is, Christmas conventions aside, perhaps the only thing that’s surprising is how unsurprising this story really is. The killing of innocents by those who want to use fear to tighten their grip on power it one of the great constants of human history: it happens in large-scale nightmares like the European Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide; in smaller mass atrocities like those that continue to happen in Syria, Burma, and western China; in loosely connected campaigns of local terrorism like those waged by white supremacists in the U.S. throughout our history to the present day.
Literally present day: as I woke up this morning preparing to preach this sermon, I learned that the latest in a recent string of violent anti-Semitic attacks happened last night, this time on Jewish people gathered in a rabbi’s home for a Hanukkah celebration. The dramatic rise in violent anti-Semitism, and more generally in racist and xenophobic violence in general in the U.S. over the last few years, does not take a break for Christmas.
What is common to all of them, regardless of scale or motive or targets, is an attempt to ensure that injustice and hatred and death continue to determine how the world works. In a very real way, each of them is an incarnation, an embodiment of fear, hatred, and lust for power at all costs in our world. Which is why this story of the aftermath of Christmas is actually one of the most important ones of the Christmas narrative, perhaps even the New Testament. It reminds us that God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is not simply a peaceful, joyful, beautiful event to be celebrated for a few weeks once a year. It is more than a generic hope for peace on earth, goodwill towards all, a reason for temporary truces between soldiers and fleeting generosity from people in the streets.
God’s incarnation in Christ is a challenge to all the incarnations of fear and hatred and desires for power and vengeance that want to run the world. It is a seismic event, an asteroid slamming into the earth that shakes the world to its foundations; it begins the process of extinction for those who currently rule the world, it signifies the beginning of a new age that will recreate and transform the way the world works.
If we stop with the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem, we are left with only the story of how all kinds of people united in responding with acceptance, joy, and submission to Jesus as the incarnation of God’s presence with us and love for us. But that’s not the whole story: from the very beginning, those who wield power in this world resist the intrusion of God into the way the world works; they respond to Jesus with resistance and aggression and violence. The Christ child does not get to stay in his manger, sleeping peacefully, accepting gifts and praises: Jesus begins life as a refugee fleeing from a genocide.
From the very beginning of Christ’s life on earth, the darkness sought to blot out the light of his presence. But that’s not the whole story, either. Because from the very beginning, the darkness fails: neither Herod nor any other human power can eliminate God’s presence or foil God’s plan to change how the world works. Herod, like all incarnations of hate, dies, and the story continues after he’s gone. The journey that begins with the midnight escape from Herod goes first to Egypt, then Nazareth, then through Galilee to Jerusalem, the cross, the empty tomb, and across the earth.
In short, the aftermath of Christmas is how the implications of God’s incarnation begin to reverberate in the world. That’s why it’s so tempting to end the story there, to avoid turning the page from peace and joy to suffering and fear; the implications are demanding and dangerous, because they arouse opposition as much as acceptance. And yet to avoid turning the page misses the whole point of Christmas. For we are living in the aftermath of Christmas, a world that is still trembling with the aftershocks of Christ’s birth.
We are living in a world that often sees God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace as a threat to be resisted rather than a blessing to be embraced. We are living in a world where the innocent are still killed to further the agendas of those who want earthly power. And we are living in a world that, despite everything that is broken and warped and contrary to the way God wants it, God loves. God loves it so much that God was willing to drop down in the midst of it and become one of us in Christ, willing to take the world’s best shot at resisting him, willing to go through opposition and innocent suffering and even death so that we could have what God has always intended for us: life, real life, life in the light of God’s love.
So if we are serious about celebrating the birth of the Christ child, then we ourselves are stepping right into the aftermath of Christmas. That’s what we pray for when we sing in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” We are praying for God to be incarnate in us, to transform us into Christ’s eyes and ears and hands and feet still at work in the world, confronting injustice and suffering, extending mercy and peace. Which is why Christ paved the way for us as one of us, starting as a defenseless baby himself, so that we could see our story in his, and his in ours; and so we would know how the great story ends, and have the courage to keep turning the page until we get there.