Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Dark Side of Christmas”
Rev. Art Ritter
December 29, 2019
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.”
The news headlines appeared on my computer screen when I went online the day after Christmas. If I was expecting the world to change after our observance of the birth of Jesus, I certainly was wrong! There was the threat of North Korea’s “Christmas surprise.” There was all of the talk about the impeachment trial and the posturing that surrounds it. I read about protesters in Hong Kong amping up their plans for the New Year. There was a shooting on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit. A five year old autistic boy went missing near my hometown in Montcalm County, MI. A typhoon killed at least 16 people in the Philippines. A Christmas day fire displaced more than 200 people in Minneapolis. Winter storms ravaged the West and the precipitation is heading this way. And hazardous waste crews continued to clean up the “green ooze” that was flowing down an embankment onto I-696.
Every year at Christmas we focus our attention on good things. That is why we tend to enjoy it so much. We emphasize the colors, the beautiful music, the jolly Santas, the joyful carols, the happy hearts, and the neatly wrapped packages under the decorated trees. All things seem possible as we hold the candles on Christmas Eve and get ready for bed with the latest report of the Santa tracker assuring us that all is well.
Yet sadly, at this time of year, things happen which remind us that Christmas is not really the escape that we wish from the reality of life. December 26 brings one back to reality. Even in the Christmas card greetings that Laura and I receive each year, some of the dark news of the world seeps through. Along with the typical news of job promotions, exciting vacations, and grandchildren- our out- of -town friends have other news at Christmas. We learn of friends with serious health concerns or tragic losses, of friends experiencing divorces or difficult work situations. It isn’t all good news!
These things are like a shadow cast upon the brightness of the season. While the light of God’s presence shines into the darkness, there is still a shade of gray vulnerability even in this season’s mystery and wonder. I recall two significant December tragedies which shaded my Christmas celebrations. In December of 2012, I remember the residents of Newtown, CT taking down their Christmas lights following the elementary school massacre there. They were not in the mood to celebrate Christmas. I also remember a famous picture from the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The photograph showed people sifting through the rubble of the crash. And in the background of the photo was a man standing out on his balcony, taking down his Christmas lights before Christmas. The darkness and death was too near and too overwhelming for his to celebrate the season.
How many of us realize that the Christmas story itself has a dark side? The words of the gospel of Matthew read this morning tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take Mary and the infant Jesus away from Bethlehem and into Egypt. King Herod, in a fit of jealous rage, was seething at the talk of some newborn king. It threatened his power. So he ordered his troops to search every household in Bethlehem and to kill every male infant.
Now this is a very brutal and bloody tale. Some scholars believe that it is a fictional tale, underscoring the significance of Jesus’ story with Moses’ story and thus establishing his Messianic identity. Others believe that it is historically accurate and points out the unsettled political and social environment of that time and place. Either way, it is a difficult story to hear. It certainly doesn’t illustrate anything that we want to talk about at Christmas. It isn’t read from the pulpit on Christmas Eve. It isn’t acted out in the children’s nativity scenes and pageants. Yet here it is in Matthew’s gospel. He writes about the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise men, and then in the very next breath he paints the picture of bloodshed and death. Why? Why put this right after the Christmas story? What does this have to do with Jesus’ birth? Why would it be important enough to hear after such great and good news? Why darkness and death so soon?
I can’t be certain, but I have a theory about this that I would like for us to reflect upon this morning. I like to think that the Christmas story, in all of its grand celebration, is really just a prelude for what comes later. As much as we love Christmas, it is not supposed to be the focal event of the people of Christian faith. Events later on in the life of Jesus provide us more of an identity. But here, in the nativity story itself, we are given hints about the future of this newborn King, the Savior of the world. We are shown what kind of king he will be. In his infant narrative, God’s great gift to humankind is announced not only by heavenly choirs but by brutal soldiers. Jesus, the one to bring life, first faces the reality of death. The Christmas story is not complete without adoring wise men and a murderous king, without extravagant gifts and bloody swords, and without swaddling clothes and burial cloths.
I think that by presenting the images of life and death so close together, Matthew’s story informs us that Jesus was born not only to bring God to us, but to also remove our greatest source of hopelessness-death. God’s own son could not avoid death, even in his birth. It would be there at the beginning of his life and it would be there at the climatic hour of his life. But through it all, God would also be there. And God would act to remove the sting of death. Death would not win out. The fear and finality of it all, the thing that robs us from the joy of living-all of that would be removed by the actions of the little baby born in Bethlehem.
Perhaps no one represents the forces of our world any better than good old King Herod. In everything that he did, and in all that he stood for, Herod represented the dark side of the humanity. Herod was a fearful and ferocious king-fearful of losing her power and ferocious toward his enemies. He made use of his weapons of war and empire. He was a bully. He was power and he was logic and he represented the expected order. In his might, Herod stood for the kind of things we fear and respect. In his vulnerability and weakness, Herod acted with our kind of angst. When confronted by the promise of God, he took refuge in his own palace. He was content to first rely upon his own power and authority. He was resistant to any invitation to change. He enslaved others to his will through threats, through ignorance, and through thoughtless action. Instead of embracing a dream, Herod crushed dreams.
Herod represented death in many forms. Death comes when dreams die. Death comes when valued relationships die. Death comes when fear keeps us from living as we should. Death comes when we ignore our God-given potential. In all these things, Herod was death.
Muriel Sparks’ novel Memento Mori, describes a group of friends, all over age sixty-five, who one-by-one receive anonymous phone calls offering them this eerie reminder, “Remember, you must die.” The novel is partly serious, partly humorous, but it speaks of the reaction of these different friends as they come to terms with the reality of the phone message. The first instinct is fear. They are concerned someone is going to act to end their life. Then the friends begin to reflect upon their lives and assess how they have lived. They see the good and the bad and how they have touched others and have been changed. The fearful message, instead of a threat, becomes a lens by which they come to terms with the meaning of their lives. The threat of death has taught them the value of life.
In a way, that is Herod’s job in the Christmas story. He forces us to move past our playful and innocent Christmas dreams to the real world in which Christmas must be lived. Life and death are a part of Christmas, as they are a part of life. We cannot push the darkness away as an unwanted possibility. It will still be there for God’s light to shine bright. It happened that way even at the first Christmas.
In his book Jacob the Baker, Noah ben Shea tells the story of a student who was with a teacher for many years. When the teacher felt that his death would come soon, he wanted to make even his parting a lesson. That night he took a torch, called his student, and set off with him through the forest. When they reached the middle of the woods, the teacher extinguished the torch without explanation. “What’s the matter?” asked the student. “This torch has gone out,” the teacher answered and walked on. “But,” the student shouted with fear, “will you leave me here in the dark?” “No! I will not leave you in the dark,” returned the teacher’s voice from the darkness. “I will leave you searching for the light.”
Such is the story this first Sunday of Christmas. The gift of Christmas may not remove all the darkness. The birth of God’s son does not mean the end of death and fear and hatred. From the beginning of Jesus’ life, just like us, he has to confront and struggle with the forces of darkness and death, all the way from the manger to the sacrifice of the cross. But God’s coming in the Christ Child tells us that there is now more to our world that we can see. Things have changed. The darkness does not own us. Death is not the end. In the story of Herod, these things are restored to the hands of God. We can hope and live in the hope that the birth of Jesus means the eventual death of the kind of power that too often rules our world.