Comments, Questions, and Observations
This story is the Magi’s quick appearance in Year A—they are the ones who have just left in verse 13. Our little family is at the center of an evil maelstrom, plucked out by Joseph’s willingness to continue to be obedient to the Lord’s messenger angel.
The journey the angel commands them to take—down from the Promised land to refuge in Egypt, eventually returning once the imminent threat has passed—follows Israel’s journey; Jesus represents the new Israel. There is much to be thankful for here, as dangers are matched by messages in dreams and God’s providence works in a way that prophecies are fulfilled.
This sort of providential protection makes me think of the way that Jesus will later be able to slip through crowds who want to arrest him, or even worse, stone him to death. It is awe-inspiring to consider the way that God will work his providential protection.
But there is also much to mourn, for not everyone is given warning to flee to safety. So much to lament, in fact, that our ancestors, symbolized by Rachel, weep at what occurs because Herod is an afraid tyrant. The Christ child is saved—for now—but how many other children die during Herod’s hunt?
Along with Rachel’s weeping, I hear the voices of the martyrs in Revelation 6: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.”
For you see, this scene has played out more than once in humanity’s history. Along with the stories we know, it has happened in lands without witnesses to record the tragedies. It is chronicled in modern war crime trials, covered by the nightly news and shared from witnesses on social media. The cries of those under the altar rings out, for the killing of innocents has not ceased.
We hold the same already-and-not-yet tension in the Christmas season that marked Advent. Here we thought we might get to turn a new leaf with the start of new calendar year, but the facts of reality remind us to stay present to the truth of the violence: the end is not yet complete.
So we can be glad that Jesus was protected until his time had come even while we join our ancestor Rachel in weeping for those who had to die because evil resisted goodness and hope. The survivor’s guilt and remorse is a difficult one to live with, but if we are honest and reflective enough, we will realize that it is one we all share: we reap the fruit of Jesus’s life and death, resurrection and ascension. We live because of him, and we die because of him. Others live because of him, and others will die horrendous deaths because of him.
In his eighth sermon on Matthew, St. John Chrysostom emphasises Joseph and Mary’s obedience in fleeing to Egypt:
See from this also their faith, how they were not offended, but are docile, and considerate; neither are they troubled, nor reason with themselves, saying, “And yet, if this Child be great, and hath any might, what need of flight, and of a clandestine retreat?…” For this most especially belongs to faith, not to seek an account of what is enjoined, but merely to obey the commandments laid upon us.
Chrysostom even doubles down on this theme, later preaching:
Joseph, when he had heard these things, was not offended, neither did he say, “The thing is hard to understand: Didst thou not say just now, that He should save His people? and now He saves not even Himself: but we must fly, and go far from home, and be a long time away: the facts are contrary to the promise.” Nay, none of these things doth he say (for the man was faithful)… [he] submits and obeys, undergoing all the trials with joy.
No offense to St. John (or maybe just a little), I’m not buying that sort of conclusion based on the fact that they were quickly obedient to flee. We know from our Advent texts that both Mary and Joseph are thoughtful, reflective people. Wondering and reflection are not counter to faithful obedience. Pondering how all these promises might be held together, how the center will hold in the midst of the factual, actual, storm of evil all around, is holy ground.
To be confused about how to put all of the dissonant pieces of the story of reality together but to continue forward all the same, is the bedrock of faith and hope. To weep and mourn with our ancestors because when people are against God they take out their anger and fear on vulnerable people, is not incongruous to faith. Blind obedience and a resistance to acknowledge real evil does no one any good.
So yes, we celebrate Christmas and the story of God’s providential protection of the Christ child for our good. But we lament and mourn that so many needlessly continue to suffer. We start the calendar year with an honest assessment of the world: providential good and rebellious evil continue to be sorely mixed. We thank God for God’s care even while we ask God, “how long?”
In both instances, Joseph’s actions match what the angel of the Lord commanded him. The first command to “flee” and the fact that Joseph “went” to Egypt are, in fact, the only two words that do not match in the Greek. Joseph’s obedience to God’s messengers proves pivotal yet again.
Scholars have scoured far and wide in the prophets in order to find the text Matthew is referring to in verse 23. No one has been able to find an instance of the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean.” There are some interesting attempts to make a word play with certain Old Testament prophecies, but even then, it’s a stretch. Could this be a matter of folklore that God decides to also fulfill?
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, better known to some as Childermas, marks the death of these first martyrs, becoming its own Feast Day by the fifth century. Many traditions hold the same tension we’ve explored in this text: withholding the Gloria and Alleluia from the worship service as a mark of lament, but allowing children freedom for folly and fun, sometimes even reversing leadership roles with children for the day.
The massacre has been captured in numerous pieces of art, from paintings to hymns, by artists from a number of different cultures. A quick visit to the Wikipedia page will link you to their pieces. If you do look at the paintings, you’ll notice that many of the scenes are depicted in the artist’s contemporary setting, or marked by their contemporary culture in some way. The artists know that the cries and deaths of the innocent continues until Christ’s second coming. And even here, we are reminded that we will never leave the tension of Advent behind—until Christ comes again, that is.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2023
Matthew 2:13-23 Commentary