BIBLE READING: Matthew 2:13-23
There are few passages in the New Testament that can match the horror of this one. What begins as a glorious revelation of the infant Jesus to three foreign visitors ends with the wholesale slaughter of infants and toddlers by an enraged and power-hungry king. From majesty to massacre in a few short verses. And all of this on the first Sunday after Christmas, when our own children and loved ones have barely finished tearing the paper from gifts.
The problem is not just the way this story challenges our Christmas merriment; it is also the way it challenges our thinking about God. Many readers cannot help but ask how such a tragedy can occur under the watchful eye of our great God. How is it that these innocents are slaughtered? Much like that earlier story of the Hebrew babies thrown in the Nile at the order of Pharaoh (Exodus 1-2), or the later genocide of Jewish children and their families in the concentration camps of Poland and Germany, or even the children and adults who were massacred in Christchurch just a few short months ago - where is God’s power to be found in all of this mess?
It's not that we believe God is indifferent to the suffering of the innocents, or that God cannot save them. The story is not asking us to choose between a powerful but wicked God and a good but impotent God. Nevertheless, in this story of human tyranny and violence, the passage refuses to grant us a vision of the enthroned God who puts kings in their places. It does not comfort us with a psalm praising God’s power to punish the wicked and empowering governments to act justly.
So what does this passage give us? Refugee's fleeing horror and death. A woman’s lament for her lost children.
“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.” (Matt 2:18)
What kind of deliverance is that?
Theologian Juliana Claassens asks us to consider the ways in which God delivers “in but not from” such horrors which humans perpetrate against other vulnerable humans (Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament ). She lifts up the healing power of laments, which were performed by women mourners in ancient Israel. God is in the grief (Jeremiah 8:21—9:1). God laments with and through Rachel. Claassens lifts up the God who nurtures in the midst of tragedy, calling out biblical images of God as mother (Isaiah 42:13-14; 49:13-15), nurturer, and protector of children. In these human actions of care and grief, the divine presence is made known.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we do not find God in the centres of human power or in the seats of earthly authority. God is not found in the political sphere or associated with political strength. The power of God is not displayed in shows of force.
Instead, God is found in the midst of vulnerability. Matthew trains our eye on the domestic and common experience of us all and there we see God in a vulnerable baby, in the fragility of a small, dependent creature. And not just there. Matthew’s gospel lets us see God at work in the protective acts of Jesus’ family. While Matthew gives us very few glimpses of Mary and the other women who delivered Jesus and the other infants into the world, Matthew does show us the protection and care that Joseph provides to the child and to Mary. And this is no small thing, because Joseph knows that this is not his biological child.
As familiar as we are with this story, Matthew’s depiction of divine deliverance is still disorienting and subversive. It challenges our reliance on shows of force and brute strength, our desire for deliverance in the form of God’s mighty arm. But even after Jesus has grown to adulthood, Matthew would have us see God in the face of the meek (Matthew 5:8), the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), the poor and imprisoned (Matthew 25:42-43). Matthew would have us take part in their deliverance.
Theologian John Thatamanil wrote about this after one of the mass killings of children in the US (Christmas in Newtown and Bethlehem).
“God does not come to eradicate vulnerability but to teach us how to welcome it. Love comes to open our eyes to look for holiness not in might and power, not in any futile attempt to secure ourselves against each other by force of arms, but precisely in our delicate bonds with each other.”
Acknowledgements: Amy Merrill Willis; Juliana Claassens; John Thatamanil