Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rachel's Tears; Mary's Fears

Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23

The day after Christmas is a bag of mixed emotions. It is when distant family members will see one another off after a nice visit. The packages and presents will have been opened and put away. Leftovers will be picked over, and there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth" when we finally realize how much food we really did put away! The high of the season of Advent is sometimes met with a lull so deep and wide that we are often left to wonder if it is all worth the trouble. Next year, we resolve, will be much simpler, a lot less troublesome, maybe a lot less expensive.

Christmas is over, and it's time to get back to the real world. It's time to take down the decorations and repack them carefully enough so maybe they can be used again next year. The house gets put back in order, and very soon it seems over almost as quickly as it had begun. And in this way it may seem strange to suggest a parallel between the Christmas "high" and its corresponding "day-after" low, and the "high" of the birth of Messiah and the "day-after" of Herod's "reality check".

I am almost always caught off guard when confronted with Matthew's record of Herod's slaughter (2:13-23) in the lection reading cycle. Just as we are winding down the celebration of the birth of the Messiah and reminding all who will listen that "God is with us", we are forcefully - and sometimes violently - confronted with the real world and all its ugliness. Our feet are once again firmly planted on the ground, and we are reminded that the world we live in can often be very harsh in spite of the Good News.

Imagine, if you can, that you are among those who had been made aware of Messiah's birth. Surely there was a hope-filled mood among the many who were privy to this knowledge, even if as many as two years had passed, that the Lord God had finally visited His people in the midst of pagan Roman domination and had brought the Good News of salvation. It would have been reminiscent of the Exodus your ancestors had spoken of and had written about. You're sitting around with family and friends trying to take in what has happened, thinking of all the good that may finally come from this remarkable news; maybe even getting a little impatient, yet still hopeful. As these visits and conversations are happening in homes around the region, the children play and nurse as if there is not a care in the world.

Suddenly, and without much warning, the laughter of the children turns to screams of terror soon replaced by "loud lamentation" as the screams subside. What was once an occasion for reflection and hope has now become memorable not because of the Good News - which is quickly forgotten - but because of the horror visited upon you by a stark reminder of a certain reality. That which "might have been" suddenly gives way to the harsh reality of "what really is." Herod is still clearly in charge. Nothing much seems to have changed, certainly not for the better. In fact, for a mother who mourns things could not be worse. And Rachel weeps.

It doesn't seem fair that such an occasion for hope can turn so quickly and so violently, but I wonder if what Christmas means can be fully appreciated without some of the ugliness of the world we live in. Such evil is actually useful in helping us to gain a broader context in which to embrace the greater good, but it is difficult - if impossible - to imagine that the mothers of Bethlehem could have been so easily consoled. Jesus was still just a toddler being protected by His own parents as all the other children were, so this "greater good" is not yet realized by the mothers of Bethlehem. That Time is yet to be; and through Rachel's tears will come Mary's fears.

The question asked by writers, scholars, and theologians - how to reconcile Herod's senseless slaughter with the birth of Christ - is an unfair question even if we would logically reason that while the children were not "saved" then, they would certainly be "saved" later when Jesus would not be spared. It is, I think, a natural human response to try and make sense out of utter nonsense and try to bring order out of chaos. It is especially problematic for Americans because we cannot conceive of a government power so absolute as to allow such a thing to happen even as we read about such things happening at the hands of governments in other parts of the world.

We do know, however, that evil cares little about "greater" things even as "greater" things are ultimately exposed, ironically, in evil. We also know, even if we try to pretend otherwise, that we are surrounded by evil - and by good. We are often confronted with evil while it seems we have to search out the good. We read of evil in the papers and hear of it on TV. I noticed during Advent there seemed to have been an unusually high number of children who had gone missing and later turned up dead. How do we reconcile the evil of this reality with the good that is Christmas? How is Herod's heinous act associated with the Christmas Story at all?

Maybe in this way: the real - and whole - Christmas story must take everything into account, especially the current reality. We cannot escape or deny the bad just because we want only the good, and we cannot improve the Good that has already come to us though we do try! We cannot deny that the Good had to come in order to confront the bad. One cannot exist without the other, but it is a hard sell to a culture that has been oriented toward personal happiness and self-fulfillment. "The Cross is a very hard sell to the many who prefer the Crown" (Rev. Bud Reeves, "Marketing the Gospel", 27 Jan 08). Yet the manger story makes no sense and has no rightful place or appropriate context outside the certain reality of Herod's massacre.

We don't live in a perfect world; and because of human instincts and inclinations, we are incapable of creating - or at least are unwilling to create - let alone maintain, a "perfect world" because our notions of perfection have more to do with how personally pleasing things are to us as individuals; we will worry about "strangers" or "neighbors" or even the Church once our own business is settled. The merit and the True Spirit of Christmas are long forgotten - if they ever existed at all - because the order we seek to restore or maintain and protect - much like Herod - has more to do with our own comfort and the sense of well-being we desire, perhaps even at the expense of others. Our own "kingdom" that is, which can often be at odds with the Kingdom that is to come.

Still, it seems quite a stretch, and unfair, to compare our own self-interests to the same manner of "evil" that was ordered by Herod. After all, we will not order or even allow the slaughter of innocent children to a political end or for our personal comfort ... will we? Or can it be true, as some theologians have suggested, that there can be no reasonable distinction between what we might consider to be "profound" evil - such as Herod's slaughter or Hitler's Holocaust - and the simple pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfillment? That which denies St. Augustine's concept of the proper "created order" that always seeks the higher level when we deny self-indulgence for the sake of others who have need? This seems to be consistent with the biblical teaching of breaking the law in which one violation renders us guilty of the whole law - whether it is an intentional act of cruelty or the neglect of complacency.

Notice, however, that even in the midst of the evil perpetrated by Herod, the Lord is still moving in a world that clearly hates Him. It is the same world that does not even know Him but nevertheless displays its hatred of Him and His ideals by the relentless pursuit of its own ideals defined by a self-actualizing culture of individualism. It is a world that reacts violently, personified by Herod, to any perceived threat to what most consider to be a more "natural order", the fulfillment and care of self to the exclusion of - and sometimes direct harm to - others.

In the face of such harsh reality, however, we must always be mindful of the Divine Reality which is to come. It is a reality for which we are prepared daily as we navigate the cumbersome world around us, the world that challenges us to pursue our own, to "look out for #1", a culture that seeks to convince us that we are indeed "masters of our own universe". It is a world which teaches us to destroy anything that gets in the way of our personal happiness and sense of security. Herod's slaughter of the children in the midst of Rachel's tears reminds us that until the final trumpet sounds, Mary's fears may be realized: that her own beloved Son was brutally tortured and murdered ... and no one cared.