Sunday Homily - January 3, 2021 - Tragedy and Christmas


The Holy Innocents Icon

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a
Matthew 2:13-23



I.

Christmas
 is a season!

If you have heard me say this before,
 and equally if you are tired of me saying it again,
  its okay!
   I'm okay being the broken record.

But the fact of the matter is, friends, 
 that we are surrounded by a culture that only gets to think about Christmas
  for 1 day a year!
   And you know that this is the case when Walmart's Christmas merchandise
    was a whopping 75% off last week,
     not even 7 days after we celebrate!

But Christmas as a season is also very important for us as Christians
 because when we understand this incredibly important occasion
  of God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ Our Lord,
   we, at least subconsciously,
    allow ourselves to recognize
     that there is more to Christmas than just the merry mood
      or the jolly good times of opening presents
       with some nice hot chocolate to drink.

Christmas as a season
 is pointing us to a more important point:
  anytime you have a season of something,
   you are on a journey filled with far more depth
    and far more twists and changes
     that only observing 1 day can ever get you. 

Take for example the natural seasons we experience.

Summer isn't just about getting outside to go to the swimming pool.
 It is also, at least in Arkansas,
  about trying not to melt into your own personal swimming pool
   while you sweat outside mowing the lawn. 
    I like swimming down at the Searcy Swim Center!
     I DO NOT like melting in my boots while mowing the grass!

Likewise, Fall isn't just about the brightly colored leaves
 adorning the trees
  or the delightfully crunchy leaf piles that blanket the ground.
   It is also about the hibernation and death
    of some of those trees and plants
     as they shed those leaves,
      which were the main way that they got their sustenance during the warmer seasons.
       Fall really is a time of death, in some small way. 

 When we go through seasons of nature,
  such as summer or fall,
   we can indeed think about them having a central picture or even a theme,
    but even those central pictures or themes is certainly not all that happens
     during those seasons.

And likewise, at Christmas,
 we observe the main celebration of Christ our God becoming one of us in all our humanity,
  but we also learn and walk through the deeper and more tragic elements
   that undergird one of the central mysteries of our faith.

And a major tragic element that we must walk through today
 is the lengths that some are willing to go to
  in order to keep God out of our lives
   and out of our world.

II.

You see,
 our story begins after the Magi have found and worshipped Jesus
  now a young child guarded and cared for by blessed Mary and Joseph.

But the path forward for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus
 takes a dark turn.

Because, the Magi had first come to Herod,
 the puppet king that Rome had set up over Judea,
  who was at least officially called,
   "Herod, King of the Jews."
    [c.f. The Eerdmans Bible Commentary, Matthew 2]

And when the Magi inquired of Herod
 where the child was born who was King of the Jews,
  Herod got spooked. 

Actually, quite a bit more than that.
 Herod was fearful.
  Because no child was born in his house under the Star that the Magi saw.
   The child born "King of the Jews"
    was not of Herod's line.
     And that meant that Herod's power was in real danger.

And what do rulers over nations do
 when they become fearful of losing power?
  They often do drastic and terrible things. 

When the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
 and when Herod didn't hear back from them where Jesus was born,
  Herod decided to use the power at his disposal
   to accomplish his task in such a way
    that we remember this action every year on Dec. 28th:
     the Holy Innocents.

All boys, two years old and under,
 ordered by the king of the region,
  killed.
   Because of the fear that a petty king had
    over his puppet-power given to him by the Roman Empire. 

We do well to remember this, friends,
 what we are willing to do to keep worldly power.

But even the tragic and ugly evil perpetrated by Herod
 could not undo what God's will was and is for the world:
  that the true King may come,
   not in fear of retaining some sort of worldly power,
    but in great humility and sacrifice,
     that He may overcome death itself
      by His own death upon the cross.

Because, in the background of this horrible scene of Christmas,
 is still the central theme and picture of the Christmas season:
  that Jesus Christ is born for us today
   our Savior and Lord
    in Bethlehem, the City of David,
    
And that, even when the darkness of Herod's action overtakes the stage for a moment,
 the central mystery of the Christmas season is subtly taking fuller shape.

Because the angels of the Lord
 were keeping watch over Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

Joseph listened and fled to Egypt,
 just like his ancient ancestor, Joseph son of Jacob,
  went to Egypt and ultimately saved the region from famine.

But the connections don't stop there.
 Because in the middle of our account this morning,
  when St. Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah,
   "A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
     Rachel weeping for her children,
      in reference to the slaughter of the young boys in Judea,
       the astute reader might recognize
        that Rachel, Jacob's wife, died passing through Ramah
         on the way to none other than Bethlehem. 
          Bethlehem, the very place where the true King was to be born.

And, again subtly,
 we can also easily miss the ultimate failure of Herod,
  who went to his miserable death before he ever could have conclusive evidence
   of whether he really did eliminate his rival, the one born King of the Jews. 
    What a deeply tragic few years those must have been for Herod,
      who committed such cruelty to try to kill Jesus, whom Herod viewed as a rival to power,
       yet who instead was to be Savior even to those like Herod who wished to kill him. 

To which we finally find ourselves once again
 in the central mystery of the Christmas season:
  Jesus, the Son of God, became incarnate of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
   to save us from the power of sin and death.

III.

Christmas is a season.
 There, I said it again for those of you counting.

And it is a season filled with far deeper and darker contours 
 that make clear how brightly the light of Christ shines in its darkness.

In the observance of our season of celebration,
 which continues until the Epiphany this upcoming Thursday,
  we are asked to contemplate and remember
   that the actions of God on our behalf
    are not always as pleasant as going swimming in the summer
     or as beautiful as the fall leaves turning their rainbow of colors.

Rather, the mystery of God-Made-Human for our sake
 is deeper than just surface level pleasantness.
  It is a depth of tragedy, loss, sacrifice, and love
   that we can't get to the bottom of
    in only 1 day of the year.

So, perhaps in the waning days of Christmas,
 the best thing we can do is to dwell in the deepest depths of our faith
  and to just say, "Thank you" to a God who loved us so much,
   that God the Eternal Word decided to go through all of the pain and suffering of evil
    that He could raise us again to newness of life in the resurrection of the dead.

Sometimes, just saying "Thank you"
 is the most important prayer we can offer.

And a heartfelt "Thank you"
 can be a great Christmas prayer, too. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

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