Last revised: December 27, 2019
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FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
RoCa: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2019 preachers might consider taking a cue from Kelly Brown Douglas in reading the story of the Holy Innocents against the background of vulnerable children of color in Racist America. Her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, has helped me more than any other to understand how deeply embedded racism is into the 400 years of our American culture. It is also movingly written from the perspective of an African-American mother fearing for the safety of her son, and weeping with the countless other mothers who have already lost their children to the violence of the White Supremacist Racism that so deeply infects American culture. Read this book, whose epilogue begins:
“A voice was heard, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” It was the time of Jesus’ birth. After discovering that he had been betrayed by the wise men, Herod demanded that “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old and under” be killed. Herod was standing his ground of power. It is in speaking of the edict from Herod that the Matthean Gospel writer speaks of Rachel, who centuries earlier was weeping for her lost children.
Rachel died giving birth to her son Benjamin. She was buried in Ramah, presumably somewhere on the way to Bethlehem. Centuries later, Rachel’s offspring, the children of Israel, would be killed and led off into exile in Babylon. As Jeremiah recalls the children of Israel being led off, he tells of Rachel weeping and refusing to be consoled. In both Matthew’s Gospel and the prophecy of Jeremiah Rachel’s weeping is at once a sign of deep grief and great hope. Her children are gone, and she refuses to be consoled by any justice that the world might offer, particularly as it continues to take her children. She can only be consoled by God. Thus, it is fitting that her weeping is recalled at the time of Jesus’ birth, not simply because Bethlehem is weeping over the loss of its children, but because the Christ child is born. Into the midst of a mother’s deepest pain and suffering God is present in the world bringing hope. One thing is made clear as Rachel’s weeping is juxtaposed with the birth of Jesus: there is no power that can stand its ground against God, not even the power of death.
After the acquittal of her son’s killer, Trayvon’s mother said, “At the end of the day, God is in control.” As the weeping of Rachel signals, there is a persistent dark side to God’s world. It is a world filled with a mother’s grief, which nothing in the world can console. This is a grief that does not go away. It is not to be dismissed or taken lightly. And God does not. For it is in the midst of this great suffering and grief that God comes. It is, thus, through a mother’s weeping that we can see the measure of the hope in the world that is God’s. It is in knowing the deep grief of a mother for her children that we can understand the extent of hope for the justice of God. Feminist and womanist theologians often proclaim God as mother. To know God as mother is for us to see God in the weeping mothers of Trayvon, Jordan, Jonathan, and Renisha as they refuse to be consoled until there is justice for their children. (pp. 228-29)
Donald Trump and his white nationalist adviser Stephen Miller have greatly expanded the children of color at risk from national policies and structures. Children suffering at our borders; children being sacrificed in violent Central American countries with no help from their wealthy neighbor; children within our borders suffering the loss of deported parents and the increasing loss of government support. The list goes on from an administration that believes in the same kind of power as King Herod.
From the moment of his birth, the story of Jesus stands in opposition to such power, turning it on its head. True power is not that of the King Herods and Donald Trumps of the world but of the one born in a backwater town on the edges of Empire, whose parents fled the violence of that corrupted power but later witnessed its emergence in their child. True power resides precisely on the margins of empire in the compassion and love of a God who suffers the corrupted power of this world’s Herods and Trumps. True power is revealed most precisely in a Messiah who chooses to suffer torture and execution at the hands of the violent power of humanity and then is raised as the power of Life itself.
Reflections and Questions
1. See the sermon “Back to Reality” which strikes a theme from the Epistle and Gospel Lessons that the Good News in Jesus Christ helps us to face the return to reality that awaits us following the holidays. The story of Jesus isn’t about escape from suffering, it’s Good News in the face of it.
1. René Girard, Things Hidden; Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem is mentioned on p. 221 in the context of his comments on “The Virgin Birth”:
The various episodes around the birth of Christ, make palpable the humble beginnings of the revelation, its complete insignificance from the standpoint of the mighty. Right from the start the child Jesus is excluded and dismissed — he is a wanderer who does not even have a stone on which to lay his head. The inn has no room for him. Informed by the Magi, Herod searches everywhere for him in order to put him to death.
See the two sections on “The Divinity of Christ” and “The Virgin Birth.”
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; on pp. 22-24, Bailie discusses Herod’s perspective on slaughtering the innocents in Auden’s poem For the Time Being, which he mentions again on pp. 27, 36. Here is an excerpt:
In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.” (1) In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”
Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of “victim” had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:
Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire. (2)
Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.”
Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”
Hughes’s essay was both insightful and entertaining, and yet he never returned to the most important point of all. He never took seriously the words from Auden with which his essay began. Auden’s Herod had sanctioned the slaughter of the innocents in order to keep the events depicted in the New Testament from happening and to prevent these events from having the effect on culture that Hughes and his fellow journalists were lampooning. Hughes never addressed the explicit inference of the Auden quotation from which his whole essay hung like an unripe fruit. He flatly acknowledged that “what Herod saw was America in the late 1980s and early ’90s,” and he strongly implied that the confusion of these years was somehow bound up with an ill-defined and selectively applied empathy for victims. And yet, he never asked why Auden’s Herod had said what he said. He never asked what might have been the role of Christianity in awakening an empathy for victims. Nor did he ponder openly how this empathy might have had the disturbing effects he describes in his article, nor what its larger historical implications might be. This book is an attempt to ponder just those things.
Auden had an anthropological sensibility, and it made him aware of features of the Christian revelation to which conventional Christian piety has yet to fully awaken. Many of Auden’s most important poems toy with insights that René Girard has since formulated explicitly. “The victim has the last word in the Bible,” Girard writes, and “we are influenced by this even though we do not want to pay the Bible the homage it deserves.” (3) The victim’s “last word” in the Christian Bible is the Crucified Logos of the gospel. Like Girard, Auden seems to have sensed what troubling consequences the worldwide proclamation of the victim as “Lord” would eventually have for cultures that still rely for their social solidarity on periodic episodes of solemnly sanctioned righteous violence. (Violence Unveiled, pp. 22-24)
3. See also the page for Holy Innocents which shares this Gospel Lesson.
4. René Girard and David Cayley, “The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion.” A CBC radio show, in the “Ideas” series, Part 5. The fifth and final part of this excellent series (and a treat in being able to listen to Girard’s voice) lays out the apocalyptic dimension of Girard’s reading of the Gospel:
René Girard: The Apocalypse is not some invention. If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die. We have no more protection against our own violence. Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.
David Cayley: This either-or, in Girard’s view, is the dynamic that the Christian gospel introduces into history. The effect is gradual, exerting itself over many centuries. But this doesn’t by any means imply that the world then grows magically less violent. Sacrifice is a means of limiting violence — a single victim thrown to the gods so that everyone can live in peace. So when people no longer sacrifice but also fail to repent, violence can easily grow worse and this worsening violence, Girard says, is an effect that many contemporary people seem to hold against Christianity.
René Girard: You know, I’m pretty accustomed now to these meetings about violence. Everybody’s talking about violence today. They’ve all read Voltaire’s Candide, and violence is a scandal to them. And so they ask, what kind of a God is that who is supposed to bring us peace and just look at the state the world is in? People show up indignantly, as if God were an American president who had not fulfilled his promises. But I say to them, where do you see it said in the Gospel that Christ came to bring peace? He tells you Himself that He’s bringing a sword and not peace, that He’s separating father from son, and so on. . . Where do you find that the Christ promises immediate peace? Christ tells you you have to fight for the Kingdom of God. Otherwise, you won’t have either the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Satan. Because the Kingdom of Satan, he says, is going to collapse as a result of its internal contradictions. It is going toward destruction. So people read the Gospel . . . well often they don’t read the Gospels at all, but they take it for granted that the Gospels are a recipe for peace. If the stock market keeps going up and at the same time we have peace, the world is fine. No more problems. What could be better? But why don’t we have that peace insured as much as it should be? And then they get angry at the Gospel because they are absolutely sure, without having read the Gospels, even if they go to church they hardly read the Gospels — they’re absolutely sure that Jesus is promising peace on earth immediately. . . .
David Cayley: Perhaps that’s why Christmas is so popular . . . all those angels with their trumpets saying everything’s going to be fine.
René Girard: Yes. Peace on earth and so forth. Everything is going to be fine. But the next minute, you know, Herod is killing all the babies in Bethlehem.
David Cayley: King Herod kills the babies of Bethlehem because he has been told by the wise men who have come from the east that a new king has been born there — a parable of what Girard is saying. The birth of Jesus occasions violence from his infancy. When He preaches in Nazareth, His hometown, the people are so enraged, the Gospel says, that they try unsuccessfully to throw Him off a cliff. And in the apocalyptic passages in His teaching, He predicts worse to come, saying that there will be signs in the sky, nations in agony, men fainting with terror and even the powers of heaven shaken. This teaching is often read, Girard says, as a prophesy that history will end in a rain of fire from heaven; but he believes that what it actually foresees is the raging of human violence, when it is no longer held in check by sacrificial institutions.
René Girard: The violence doesn’t come from God. I try to impress this on the fundamentalists, whom I sometimes talk to or see as students. I say, but why do you want that violence to come from God? Isn’t it a wonderful discovery that it comes from Man and therefore you can justify God and not blame God for the violence which is about to descend upon the world? God has nothing to do with it, obviously. It’s Man’s human sin which is bringing it about, and there is nothing in the Gospel that says it’s the violence of God. It says, “It will be as in the days of Sodom. . .” and so forth, but it doesn’t say anything more. At no point does Jesus say God will punish you.
David Cayley: Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings predict a human conflagration, Girard says, but modern enlightened Christians have generally failed to see this and so have treated these texts as embarrassments. He gives as an example the early 20th century medical missionary and biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer.
René Girard: Poor Albert Schweitzer . . . he’s the one who decided all biblical scholarship was false because earlier scholars hadn’t discounted this enormous amount of apocalyptic stuff in the Gospel. They thought it applied to our world; but, according to Schweitzer, it has nothing to do with it. The Apocalypse comes from that old Jewish milieu, where they thought the end of the world was about to come. So he said, we can reject all this. But we live in a world, suddenly, where the end of the world is present again. It comes back not as a religious text, but as scientific knowledge, the only type of knowledge we believe in.
5. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, ch. 5, “A Word from Above,” pp. 91-93. In this crucial chapter, Marr uses the idea of theo-drama of Raymund Schwager and Hans Urs von Balthasar to outline God’s story in Christ through the lens of mimetic theory. He also uses the seasons of the Church Year to the extent that they follow the unfolding of this narrative. Citation of this passage falls within the section on Christmas. He writes,
What is so amazing is that God, who we might think is the ultimate in invulnerability, chooses to be vulnerable. God’s vulnerability is attested by the prophets who spoke of God’s distress over human waywardness and infidelity, but even then, the Word was not vulnerable to the “boots of the tramping warriors.” (Isa. 9:5) But once the Word was born in the flesh of a human mother and laid in a manger, the Word had become just as vulnerable to trampling boots and automatic rifles as the children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the children slaughtered in and around Bethlehem by order of King Herod. (Mt. 2:16)
Here is where the mystery deepens so profoundly as to escape comprehension. It goes against what we think are our deepest instincts. We do everything to make ourselves less vulnerable, from putting on plated armor, to hardening our feelings, to buying weapons to defend us from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet. If the Word, without whom nothing that was made was made, is willing to be so defenseless, then perhaps it isn’t really our deepest instinct to defend ourselves so aggressively after all. (p. 91)
6. Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground, Epilogue, p. 228. See the quote above in the opening comments.
The intelligence of the victim is a consequence of something which precedes it — that is, the teaching about freedom. It is fascinating to observe how in the gospels the disciples were able to discern this back in the life of Jesus from their new perspective of people touched by the resurrection. It was not, as they could see, having been killed that made Jesus special, or even having been killed and raised again. It was what, for want of a better term, I call the free self-giving of Jesus, which led to his being crucified.
That is to say, the life of human freedom leading to persecution which Jesus was teaching his disciples was first led by him, and it was this free self-giving that made him special. I would even go so far as to say that this was the sign that they had had among them a man who was also God. As the disciples’ intelligence of the victim deepened, so they saw the self-giving as prior to the passion. So, Luke and Matthew take us back beyond Jesus’ public ministry to the infancy, and illustrate the given-ness of Jesus even as an infant. Luke characteristically emphasizes the graciousness of the given in Jesus: the angels, the child in the Temple, but keeps alive the threat of the sword in Simeon’s prophecy to Mary. Matthew characteristically portrays Jesus’ infancy as a series of near escapes from lynch deaths — Mary was not stoned thanks to an angel telling Joseph to take her as wife even though she was pregnant, Herod did not manage to massacre Jesus, who had escaped to Egypt; yet Jesus was clearly given as a fulfilment of the prophecy concerning Emmanuel. Notice how the intelligence of the victim reaches right back into the family life of Jesus.
John, as in so many places, makes this intelligence even clearer than the other evangelists — having probably had longer to think about it. He places the givenness outside history and in God. So, in the famous verse, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .’ (John 3.16), a verse which contains echoes of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Abrahamic sacrifice is turned on its head. God gives his Son, out of love for the world, which sacrifices him. In the intelligence of the victim, the self-giving is prior, anterior to the sacrifice, and the sacrifice is incidental, accidental, to the self-giving. So, Jesus did not give himself so as to be a victim, he gave himself, in the full awareness that he was to be a victim, but did not want this at all. There was no death-wish in Jesus. This is why John stresses particularly Jesus’ freedom with relation to his ‘hour’ — he deliberately avoided lynching on several occasions because his hour had not yet come. He is also completely in command at his passion, and even says so beforehand: ‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’ (John 10.18).
Of course, most spectacularly, this intelligence of the victim is present in John’s prologue, where the word by which all things were created, and its coming into the world, are all prior to the victimization, which is passed through a single phrase, ‘He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.’ In John’s gospel more than in any other, the self-giving of God is stressed as the key behind the victimization. The resurrection of the crucified and risen one had given the complete background to the self-giving victim, showing everything as depending on the self-giving and revealing of God. It is this movement, and this alone, that made possible the emergence of the discovery that God is Love. It was this which made it possible that Jesus’ self-giving as victim came to be understood to be part of the self-giving of God, which hugely anteceded it. (pp. 48-50)
8. James Alison, Broken Hearts and New Creations, ch. 9, “‘He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself,'” p. 141; also available online. He cites this passage as an example of the Hebrew scriptures being fulfilled in Christ, on his way to outlining a method of reading the Bible which he names as “Christological reading”:
I’m aiming at making a contribution to something which I intuit as being important for the future of our Catholic life: the recovery of the habits necessary for a reading of the Scriptures which is both Ecclesial and Eucharistic. The route to this recovery winds through the filling out of our sense of how it is that the Anointed One of God, the Christos, makes available for us a fulfilled reading of the texts which we have received. . . .
Normally, when Christological readings are in the air, it is because one or other of the New Testament authors refers some incident from the life of Jesus to a text in the Hebrew Scriptures. In some cases, we are talking about an understanding which quite clearly came way later than Jesus’ death and resurrection. For instance, Paul sees the Messiah, the Christ, as having been already present in the Rock which followed the Israelites in the desert (1 Cor 10:1-4). On other occasions, we are dealing with a recognition that in the light of what the authors understand now, they are able to point to an event at which they hadn’t been present, and see in it something that one of the Prophets of old had been talking about. For example, Matthew states that Jeremiah’s oracle about Rachel’s weeping was fulfilled when Herod killed the innocents (Mat 2:17; Jer 31:15).
9. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 30, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from January 6, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. See the 1995 sermon “Back to Reality” which strikes a theme from the Epistle and Gospel Lessons that the Good News in Jesus Christ helps us to face the return to reality that awaits us following the holidays. The story of Jesus isn’t about escape from suffering, it’s Good News in the face of it.
Notes from Violence Unveiled