Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Herod’s fear and the fear of the powerful people around him are what precipitated the tragedy we read about today. Matthew even lets it be known that Herod knew what the star and the birth meant; he is the first one to drop the word “Messiah” when asking his experts where to look. He knows that this child is God’s promised one, but that only makes him all the more determined to have the child eliminated. When the ploy with the magi fails, he resorts to scorched-earth tactics to ensure that his goal is achieved, and his power is safe.
We might prefer to forget this story altogether; it is left out of our children’s story bibles, absent from our Christmas cards, and usually skipped in our lectionary in favor of a service of lessons and carols, but St. Matthew insists that it is as much a part of the Christmas story as the star or the magi. We need this story because it doesn’t let us forget or deny our own suffering.
Like us, Matthew’s community had probably never experienced anything so disastrous as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. They had probably never had to seek refuge in Egypt or anywhere else. They did, however, have their own stories of pain and hardship. They knew the brutal “peace” of Rome. They knew about the pain of children lost to war, poverty, disease. This story is one way Matthew has of telling them that Jesus knows what it’s like to be in their shoes.
When Jesus and his family flee to Egypt, they step into the stories of one of his ancestors. Joseph, son of Jacob, lived as a slave and a prisoner in Egypt for many years. When famine came to Canaan, he was in a position to welcome his own family as refugees in his new home. Like Jesus, when Moses was born generations later, a fearful king tried to destroy him by killing all the male children. Both of them were destined to set their people free. Matthew wants his readers to see how Jesus is like Jacob and Moses and the Israelites walking through the Red Sea; he wants us to know that Jesus is truly able to save his people because he has suffered the same things they have. Jesus isn’t just like Joseph and Moses and Israel, he is them.
That’s why it is “fitting,” as we read today, “that the pioneer of our salvation was made perfect through sufferings.” The word “made perfect” can also be translated as “completed” or “made whole.” Jesus’ own experience of suffering is what enables him to really be Emmanuel; for he could not be “with us” if he didn’t share all of our experiences—including the ones we’d rather forget.
By showing us that Jesus suffers alongside us, Matthew gives us permission to admit the ways in which life has hurt us, because they hurt Jesus, too. Matthew’s story allows us to let down our guard with God and with one another, to share our pain and weep together and console one another. If you’ve read Brené Brown, you’ve heard her say that this kind of vulnerability is what clears the way for true, meaningful relationship. Being vulnerable with one another—trusting people not to hurt you when you’ve got your armor down—is what makes us able to love in a way that is completely new.
Jesus is God made vulnerable to us. As a child, he was subject to all the diseases and dangers that worry parents today, and also to the murderous rage of tyrants on top of that. His vulnerability and his suffering invite us into fuller relationship with God and with one another.
Matthew’s story, as grim as it is, offers us hope for an escape from the suffering of this life. It’s interesting to note that Josephus does not record Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; perhaps because it was simply not noteworthy among the rest of Herod’s misdeeds. In life, we expect Herod to succeed; we expect the tragedy that follows.
And yet, despite the lengths to which Herod went to destroy Jesus, his plan failed: the child lives. Jesus’ presence among us gives us the hope for a future that is different from the past, hope for a life in which people are not driven from their homes and the strong no longer oppress the weak. Jesus gives us hope that there is one who can save us from our sins.
This hope takes root in us as the ability to express compassion for others, and to walk alongside them as Jesus walks alongside us. As we learn to talk about our own sufferings and grief, we become sensitive to the often greater sufferings of others. It’s easy to look past the people we don’t want to see because they make us uncomfortable or nervous. It’s easy to pretend the grief or the pain of others doesn’t exist because it makes for awkward conversation. It is much harder to face these people and their suffering head-on, but the reward is relationship that is fuller, deeper, and more meaningful. When we move from ignorance to accompaniment, we find that acknowledging and even embracing the suffering of ourselves and others actually adds something to our experience of life; it makes us complete. This is experiencing the salvation of Jesus.
As an example, I think about part of an interview with Stephen Colbert I read some years ago. He talks about how, as a child, his father and two older brothers were killed in a car accident, and he describes it as a nuclear apocalypse that completely changed his world. That event, he says, helped make him who he is now. If that hadn’t happened, he may not be where he is now; his life may have turned out much differently. He still grieves his loss, and his success or healing now doesn’t justify it, but to say that he loves himself now, that he loves the person who he has become, means that he has had to accept that suffering as a part of himself; that he has had to learn to love the thing he most wish had not happened. That is what it means to be made whole by one’s sufferings: to realize that they are a part of you, that they inform who you are, that you wouldn’t be the person you are without them. This is true not only for us, but also for Jesus.
Christmas is a holiday celebrating the Incarnation: God-with-us, the life that is the light of all people entering into human flesh and blood to dwell with us. Because he has experienced our lives with all the pain and tragedy they have to offer, he really is the pioneer of our salvation. He has stood where we now stand, he has been lost in the same places we have been; and only One who knows where we have been knows the way to lead us home.
This is not a fun story to read, certainly not a very Christmassy story, but it’s a story we need because it can teach us to embrace our pain and to share it with one another so that we may find a deeper love for God and for one another.