Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." ~ Matthew 2:13-23
This morning weâ€™re at the end of Matthewâ€™s Christmas story. Just before this passage the Wise Men have dropped off their gifts to the baby Jesus and, having been warned in a dream, return home by another route. The very next story in Matthewâ€™s Gospel begins â€œIn those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, â€˜Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!â€™â€ We stand here at the endâ€¦
Some of us are likely breathing a heavy sigh of relief. â€œThank God Christmas is over!â€ we might be saying to ourselves. We can get back to our lives. The constant marketing sinceâ€¦I donâ€™t knowâ€¦Does it begin in September now? The build up is unreal with weeks of deals and sales and jinglesâ€¦maybe we should just be glad itâ€™s over.
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Isaiah 63:7-9
Maybe you are still full from yesterdayâ€™s Feast. I know I woke up this morning still full from the ham and sweet potatoes and pie and, and, andâ€¦I could use a break from all the celebrating. Can we be done now? Are we there yet?
But I have some bad news for you. I know itâ€™s supposed to be the season of Good News. I think I said something like that on Christmas Eve. Godâ€™s news is always good newsâ€¦Well, I need to add the phrase â€œexcept when itâ€™s not.â€ Sometimes the news is bad. Like this: There are, my friends, twelve (Yes, twelve. Two more than ten.) days of Christmas. Yesterday was Christmas Day. Today is the first (or second depending on how you count them) day of Christmas. We have a total of twelve.
Whatâ€™s for dinner?
The tradition of the Twelve Days has been around for centuries. The liturgical calendar developed very early in Christian history; the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany serving as a mid-winter festival in the northern hemisphere. Itâ€™s meant to be a fast from fasting. Itâ€™s supposed to be a time to remember all the great events of Jesusâ€™ young lifeâ€¦those road markers like his naming ceremony or Jesusâ€™ bar mitzvah that Luke will spell out for us. The season culminates with Jesusâ€™ Baptism in the Jordan.
With all of the pre-emptive feasting and preparation provided by our sales-happy culture beginning with Halloween, perhaps the purpose of the twelve-day festival eludes us Christians. This is a time for play. Itâ€™s a time to enjoy, because the real work will begin soonâ€¦the work of the Baptized Christ.
But how do we get there from here? How do we get from the infant Christ to the Man from Nazareth? Perhaps there is another way to think about Christmastide that can help us make the journey.
Christmastide can be a time to ask the question made famous at wedding receptions everywhere thanks to R&B artist Heavy D: â€œNow that weâ€™ve found love what are we gonna do with it?â€
Mary and Joseph have this baby and weâ€™re all glad with them that the child was born safely if not under the most ideal circumstances. Still, it is good news. But now we have some other concerns.
Just like we knew he would, Herod has lost his mind and he wants the infant found. Heâ€™s terrified that he will lose the political power he posses. Once again Joseph has a dream and takes it as a cue to leave the country. So they pack up their meager belongings and escape to Egypt. Herod goes into a murderous rage and orders the death of all children under the age of two living around Bethlehem.
The people are inconsolable. Here we are in the Christmas story and we are met with violence of all things. Just two nights ago the angels were singing. Today they weep. We are left with more questions than answers.
The world is not always a safe place to carry something as fragile as Love Made Flesh. Itâ€™s easy to forget in the midst of our celebrations that God can be threatening to people, that Love lived out can be frightening to people. The change that is asked of us, the relinquishing of our own might, may be too hard for some of us.
And for Matthew, itâ€™s a poignant reminder that Jesus will eventually die at the hands of a government official. Matthew knows. We, the readers, the people who know the story so well already, we too know that this threat is a foreshadowing of a greater event. So we mark the time. We pause in our lives to celebrate what has been done and because we know what is to come. And that takes twelve days.
A friend of mine, Travis Norvell, took a call to serve a church in New Orleans a little over a year ago now. Heâ€™s a good pastor and an excellent writer. Occasionally something he has written will appear in the newspaper or somewhere on line. Last Easter he wrote about how New Orleans taught him something about his own Christianity. He wrote about how Carnival helped him make sense of Lent which in turn helped him make sense of Easter. He writes:
Carnival provided me the proper context to view Lent. Before 40 solemn days there had to be a time of jubilant festivity. Contemplating death on Ash Wednesday only made sense after I celebrated life in Carnival. My Lenten fast only makes sense after the feast during Carnival. In New Orleans this rhythm and flow of life happens. In New Orleans, the gift of Lent makes sense.
The rhythm and flow of lifeâ€¦What drives your life? Is there a rhythm or flow? I know I struggle at times to find it.
It can be easy to forget our own Church calendar with all the other calendars that are out there. Corporations have calendars. Businesses have calendars. Governments have calendars. We mark time in a thousand different ways. Fiscal year. Program year. School year.
Itâ€™s easy to forget the Church year. Or if we havenâ€™t forgotten it, it is easy to set it aside. It can seem like a burden, yet another duty to perform in a world replete with ways of recording our days.
Or instead, we can try to see it as a gift, a certain gift offered to one another as Christians. We can grant one another rhythm and flow. We can give the gift of time this Christmas.
Itâ€™s a chance to do something different with our time. Itâ€™s a chance to step away from the other calendars and spend our time differently. This Church Year is a tool to help us learn to think like Mary and Joseph, to learn to think and love like Jesus.
Isaiah said: â€œI will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.â€
In these twelve days, I encourage you to play. I encourage you to walk with the child named Love as he grows up. I encourage you to journey with his parents as they raise him, as they try to keep him safe. Listen to your dreams. Ponder whatâ€™s in your heart. Mark the events. Then, as the season comes to a close, open your hearts to the Gifts of the Magi and be Baptized once again with Jesus.
We have to mark time in our lives. We need little rites of passage, rhythms, to our lives that can help us unearth this Love that is within us. The work has not yet begun. Now we simply watch it unfold. Epiphany approaches.
For these days, however, just for these twelve days, ponder this: Now that weâ€™ve found love, what are we gonna do with it? Perhaps it feels fragile. Maybe you feel like you want to run off to some other country to keep it safe for a time. Perhaps it needs to be swaddled and cradled and sung to. Nurture it. Let God bless it.
Watch it grow in wisdom, and then, when the time is right, set it free and watch what it will do.
It is still Christmas. Thereâ€™s more stories to tell and a child that must grow up. Give Jesus room to grow. Merry Christmas.