Today is a very weird day for us scripturally and liturgically. Even though there are two Sundays appointed for Christmastide, we rarely get to enjoy both because the feast of Epiphany, which falls on January 6, usually gets substituted for the Second Sunday of Christmas. This year because we get to celebrate the second Sunday of Christmas, we go from Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve and last Sunday, to the flight to Egypt this week – which takes place after the magi arrive. And next week, we will go backwards to hear about the magi’s arrival which happens before this week’s lesson. Like I said, today is super weird.
But the timing is not the only weird feature of today. The structure of the Episcopal lectionary varies from the Revised Common Lection today and cuts out verses 16-18 of the second chapter of Matthew. Now, normally, cutting out a few verses is not that big of a deal, but today cutting out verses is a huge deal. We go from learning that Joseph has a dream warning him to flee to Egypt because Herod wants to destroy the baby Jesus (because the magi arrived and told him a baby has been born king of the Jews – and Herod is not interested in anyone taking power from him), to Herod dying and Joseph receiving another dream in Egypt telling him to go back home to Israel with his wife and baby Jesus. But in those three omitted verses is an atrocity so mind blowing, I can only surmise the lectionary crafters eliminated the verses because they thought we would be too distracted by the atrocity. In those three verses, Herod realizes he has been tricked by the magi, and so he sends his men to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem to make sure a new king does not arise. In essence, Herod is so determined to keep his power that he kills about twenty infants and toddlers[i] to secure his leadership.
But the weirdness does not stop there today. This text is laden with meaning and parallelism. Joseph is spoken to in dreams which causes him to safely journey to and from Egypt. Another Joseph – the son of Jacob and great-grandson of Abraham with the coat of many colors – he had dreams too that led to his bondage in Egypt at first, but eventually to his security and power in Egypt when he interprets dreams for the pharaoh. So, we hear a parallel story of two Josephs. We also hear a parallel story of Moses and Jesus. As one scholar explains, “At Jesus’ birth, violent forces seek his life, just as violent forces had sought the life of Moses.”[ii] If you remember, the reason Moses was raised in the security of Pharaoh’s home was because Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in a papyrus basket floating down the river – floating away because Pharaoh had ordered every male Hebrew child be killed because the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and he feared losing his power. In essence, Jesus’ and Moses’ stories track one another – Jesus is the “Son of God and the expected prophet like Moses who will deliver Israel through a new exodus.”[iii]
Here’s the thing about the weirdness today. We do not really want weirdness right now. We are still in the twelve days of Christmas, and we want babies, and angels, and mom’s pondering, and dad’s standing righteously, and shepherds praising and marveling, and magi adoring the Christ Child. In part, we want the sentimental comfort and joy of Christmas because our lives are running short on comfort and joy lately. In fact, the wave of the Omicron variant is pressing upon us, and in a time when we thought we would be moving toward freedom, we are making a U-turn toward oppressive restrictions. We have enough turbulence, terror, and violence in today’s world – the last thing we want to do is read about that mess (and more accurately, that repeated mess!) today in church.
But here’s where we find hope. Matthew may lay out murder and fleeing and the continuation of a violence and oppression. But as Dean Culpepper reminds us, “Matthew dares to see things as they are and still affirm that God is working, even in the worst that we can do.”[iv] Today is not about glossing over the mess of this world. Today is about naming the mess of this world and still being able to see God at work, doing something as radical as sending the Christ Child to us. That is the real joy of Christmas this year. “Nothing can defeat God’s promise of Immanuel, God with us. Even when we cannot celebrate peace on earth…we can celebrate Immanuel, …the love of God and the promise of peace.”[v] And that promise is better than any glossed over, sentimental wishes of a Merry Christmas. That promise is weird, but tremendously good news, indeed. Amen.
[i] R. Alan Culpepper, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 167.
[ii] Culpepper, 169.
[iii] Culpepper, 169.
[iv] Culpepper, 169.
[v] Culpepper, 169.