Antidote to Christmas
Many of you are glad it's over; you're sick of Christmas, not of Christ mind you but of the worldly holiday. So is the world itself. Gone are the carols from the store; gone is the talk of how much peace and good will there is between men. The world is beginning to take on the heaviness of January with only New Year's Eve in the way. So why on earth has the church since the 4th century remembered slaughtered babies at Christmas time? Because the festival of The Holy Innocents is the antidote to the worldly Christmas that chokes some of us.
Remembering Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem exposes the powerlessness of the world's Christmas. The world's Christmas depends on the presence of happy, peaceful feelings. Don't you feel this? I do. You have to be happy, joyful at this time of year. You must be carefree, in a good mood, and downright jolly or you're not in the (Christmas( spirit; you're a Scrooge; you're a Grinch; you're the abominable snowman with a toothache.
The world's Christmas can't deal with tragedies like the one in our text. Go home; get out your family Bible, and find a picture of the slaughter at Bethlehem. Look at it; study it. Imagine the soldiers storming into peaceful Bethlehem; see them snatching little baby boys from the arms of shrieking mothers. They stab them with their swords and throw their lifeless bodies in a heap. Imagine the wail that arises from a town where all of its baby boys two years and under are killed at the same time. The world might face this at Halloween, but not at Christmas.
The prophet Jeremiah saw this scene 600 years before it happened. He saw mothers weeping for their children; he saw they refused to be comforted, because the children were no more. Do you see the resignation, the realization that nothing can be done about this situation? The babies are dead, and that is not going to change.
The world cannot deal with this at Christmas. In the world's Christmas everything works out. Name me one Christmas episode of a TV show that ends with the hopelessness of the slaughter of the innocents. Show me one Christmas movie that ends with people in tears of grief. In the world's Christmas Rudolph always learns to fly, is accepted by the other reindeer, and becomes the hero. Frosty always comes back. The Grinch always has a change of heart and Scourge always saves Tiny Tim. It's always Merry Christmas to all and all have a good night.
Is this true of your Christmases? It's not of mine. Sometimes, Rudolph has remained an outcast; Frosty has become a puddle; the Grinch has stayed small-hearted, and Tiny Tim has died. But look what I find in Scripture. I see in the slaughter of the innocents that Jesus had a Christmas like mine, not like the world's. The fact that I feel more sad than glad at Christmas may make me weird in the eyes of the marketers of Christmas but not in the eyes of the Christ of Christmas.
Yes, there's an antidote to earthly Christmas in the festival of The Holy Innocents. It shows us not only the powerlessness of a worldly Christmas in the face of real life but the "powerlessness" of the Christ of Christmas. What's that? What about Him being, as Isaiah says, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father? Christ of course is these things but in the incarnation He veils His almighty power. The festival of The Holy Innocents shows us this.
Imagine how it was for Joseph. He knew the truth about Jesus from Mary, from an angel, from shepherds, from Simon, from Anna, and from wise men. But if Jesus is true God in flesh and blood why does He need to flee? If Jesus is the all powerful God, why is an angel telling Joseph to take Him to Egypt? Why don't the angels do that? If God, the true Ruler of earth, has come down to earth why does it appear that Satan rules? If Jesus loves the little children why are so many of them going to die helplessly?
The world's Christmas can only stammer and stutter in response. It does not understand the fact that Jesus humbled Himself by coming into the world the way He did. The manger, the stable, the cattle, and the shepherds are the way it's supposed to be to the world. These things don't indicate to the world that God humbled Himself by being born, by sharing His room with animals, by being placed in a feeding trough, and by being pawed on by smelly shepherds.
To the world the manger, stable, cattle, and shepherds are as much a part of Christmas as Santa, reindeer, and elves are. They evoke sweet, happy, warm-fuzzy feelings in the world. But the world doesn't know what we do. The feeding trough, cattle, and shepherds are marks of how terribly low God humbled Himself in order to reach us in the depths of our sin. The world doesn't know these things are a sign that from the day of His birth Jesus' life on earth will be one of humiliation and suffering under our sins, sorrows, and cross. And the world doesn't know that all His brothers and sisters follow in His footsteps.
We follow in the footsteps of Christ. We no more appear to be sons and daughters of God than He did. We no more look like the rulers of heaven and earth than He did. We no more look like we have defeated sin, death, and the devil than He did. Our lot in life is like His. Satan rages against us all our days as he did against Christ. He hounds us as he did Christ. And no, he doesn't let up at Christmas. He may even get more intense as he did that first Christmas.
St. John says that it doesn't yet appear what we shall be in heaven: rulers, lords, and kings. We live in a state of humiliation now, not to pay for our sins as Christ did, but because He has paid for them, so it isn't really strange that we have sorrow when the world has only joy. Jesus told the apostles that their emotions would be the opposite of the world's. He said, "You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice." He promised though that their sorrow would one day be turned to a joy that would never be taken away.
Don't think it strange that you cannot find joy in what the world does! Don't think you're weird because you can't get that peaceful easy feeling from Christmas that the world trumpets it does. Every year you see what happens to the world's peace and joy. It disappears on the evening of December 25 or even sooner in the face of tragedy.
Okay fair enough. But what about us? If the world's Christmas doesn't give any lasting peace or joy with which to face reality, what about our Christmas? Does the true Christmas which is found in this story of murder and running for your life provide what the world's doesn't? Does it actually provide an antidote to reverse the effects of a superficial Christmas which leaves us feeling helpless in the face of reality?
The true Christmas doesn't try to stir up feelings; it centers on facts. And it doesn't pretend hard facts don't exist. It faces even the hardest facts of Christmas. It tells us of the slaughtering of all the boy babies in a little town; it tells us Simeon warned Mary that a sword would pass through her own soul; it tells us how death stalked Jesus from the manger on.
Our Christmas carols, unlike the world's, are equally forthright. You won't hear sleigh bells jingling, or silver bells ringing in our carols, but you might hear a bell tolling in Wadsworth's carol, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day:" "And in despair I bowed by head;/ 'There is no peace on earth,' I said,/ 'For hate is strong and mocks the song/ Of peace on earth good will to men.'" You won't hear about Rudolph's nose piercing the foggy night, but you will hear in "What Child is This," how "Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,/ The cross be borne for me, for you." Neither will you smell chestnuts roasting on an open fire in our carols. But you will smell myrrh in "We Three Kings:" "Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom;/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/ Sealed in a stone-cold tomb."
This facing of reality by the real Christmas helps me to face reality. I'm not left with a superficial joy but a clear awareness that sin, death, and the Devil are always active in this world and their being active aren't indications that my God and Savior are absent. Even if sin, sickness, or sorrow ravages my life at Christmas, it doesn't mean my Jesus is absent. He isn't only present when sleigh bells are ringing in a winter wonderland. He is present when code blues are sounding in hospitals. Having sin, death, and even Satan around doesn't rob me of Christmas. They were at the first Christmas too. They didn't stop or even slow Christ's coming. Neither Satan nor the world can conquer Christ or Christians at will.
Christ, God in flesh and blood, is what ultimately changes everything. And He is precisely what the world's Christmas fails to deliver. It never gives you Christ. It gives you all those adorable Christmas characters you grew up with, but it leaves out Christ. The answer is not to force Christ into the world's Christmas. That would be like Joseph staying in Bethlehem and fighting to keep Baby Jesus alive. The answer is to flee to Egypt where your Jesus is. Let Satan and Herod have Bethlehem, the manger, the stable etc. Let them have the joy, the cheer, the happiness. We'll take Christ in His Word, Christ in our Baptism, Christ on our altar. He remains ours in these no matter how down, how blue, how sad our Christmas might be.
Can't you imagine Mary and Joseph feeling outcast, down, and blue in Egypt? But then they see Jesus and remember all that He is: Lord and Savior and that He is still with them. This Baby is their Peace on earth; This Baby is their Great Joy. He is their Peace even in the face of dead babies. He is their Joy even in the face of Satan's threats. We too are in Egypt now, but Jesus is with us. He remains our Peace and Joy too no matter what our holiday was like. Amen
Rev Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Innocents, Martyrs (20081228); Matthew 2: 13-18