Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 2nd of First Month, 2022
Speaker: Eden Grace
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-21
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Escape to Egypt
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.”
The Massacre of the Infants
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.”
The Return from Egypt
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.
First off, I need to say that the bucolic manger scene of adorable Christmas pageants and sentimental nativity displays may be majestic and inspiring – with shepherds and angels and kings and animals all gathered around the newborn Jesus – but this greeting-card version of the story doesn’t reflect the actual text. Not only does it mash together the different gospel stories in ways that ignore the actual timelines in the text, it diverts our attention from what’s really happening here. Today’s text isn’t a story about expensive Christmas presents delivered from far-off lands. This is a “text of terror”, one of those places in the Bible where something truly horrific happens, and we have to wonder, what is this story doing in our Holy Scripture? What did it mean to Matthew, who recorded it? What did it mean to the original hearers of Matthew’s gospel? What does it mean to us today?
Just to recap the story very briefly:
Some time after Jesus’s birth, “wise men” turned up in Jerusalem. Matthew doesn’t say how many of them there were. The word he uses, “Magi,” is a Persian word for Zoroastrian priests or magicians or astrologers. They weren’t called kings until much later in the Christian tradition, and the text doesn’t at all imply that they were political rulers, but rather that they were religious scholars from what is now Iran.
These Magi presented themselves to Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, because they had seen evidence through their astrological studies that the ancient prophesy of Zoroaster about the birth of a Messiah was being fulfilled. So they asked Herod for directions to where they could visit this Messiah. What were they thinking? Were they hopelessly naïve?
Herod was a famously paranoid king, well known for fending off any perceived threats to his power with ruthless violence. (Incidentally, he is the father of the Herod who figures in the Easter story.) The text makes clear that the Magi’s purposes were very publicly known in Jerusalem, which would certainly have caused a crisis for Herod. He did two things in response – he publicly solicited information from Jewish scholars to corroborate the Zoroastrian prophesy, and he privately asked the Magi to inform him when they found the child. So that he could pay homage, he said. Again, were the Magi so naïve as to believe this bald-faced trickery? Maybe they weren’t so wise, after all. We don’t know, but off they went.
Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph and the toddler Jesus are still in Bethlehem, two years after the census. They’re living in a house, not still sheltering in a stable. Perhaps, despite the initial lack of welcome, they had formed a sense of community there. Perhaps Mary had bonded with the other young mothers, and had turned to the midwives and aunties for advice. Perhaps Joseph’s carpentry skills were valued by his new customers. Perhaps no one there had heard the awful scandal of her pregnancy; no one there had condemned him for sticking by her. Perhaps they were quite happy to start their lives over in a new town.
And then the Zoroastrian priests showed up. They appeared, gave their gifts, presumably with some explanation of what they believed to be the significance of the child, and then they left again. This has to be another of those moments that Mary pondered in her heart, like when the shepherds came to the stable. The text doesn’t tell us how she reacted to such a bizarre intrusion into their quiet, safe life. But, contrary to the lyrics of the popular song, Mary did know. She knew what her son’s life meant. She carried the knowledge of both exquisite blessing and unspeakable suffering.
And Joseph, who had never abandoned them, but who seemingly wasn’t home when the Magi visited, received wisdom in a dream that his family was in danger. Joseph has four such spiritual dreams in Matthew’s gospel, and both he and Mary took them very seriously. Just as the Magi did when they finally saw in a dream that Herod was using them, and they escaped home by a different route.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled “by night”, indicating that they left in a great and fearful hurry. And its good they did, because once Herod realized he’d been outwitted, he unleashed his rage and ordered the massacre of every boy child under two in the town of Bethlehem. I’ll say more about this horrific incident in a bit.
Jesus made it to safety, but how did these traumatic events impact the young boy? There is a lot of new research about the impact of refugee trauma on children, and this isn’t the place to rehearse it, but suffice it to say that this would have been a profoundly formative experience, and would have helped shape his life-long affiliation with the outcast and oppressed, with those whom society considers transgressors.
Herod died not long after this, and Joseph learned in a dream that it was safe to return to Israel. He also learned that he should go back to Nazareth, the place of their infamy, rather than to Bethlehem, their adopted home. And so they went back, and Jesus grew up in a town that knew his illegitimacy, that accorded him no honor at all once his gifts of ministry began to emerge. What a disappointment that must have been for them all.
And so, Matthew has set the stage for the narratives of the mature Jesus. But with such a strange and disturbing story! None of the other gospels tell us that the Holy Family had to flee for their lives, and we’re tempted to think that this whole episode probably never happened. There’s no archaeological evidence to support it. So what are these verses doing in our Holy Scripture? Why was this story told and retold and preserved over decades and centuries, and then included in the final canon as material deemed to be important to our faith?
Matthew’s gospel contains a thematic through-line comparing Jesus to Moses (just as Herod is a parallel to Pharaoh, who ordered the massacre of the Hebrew baby boys when Moses was born). In this way, Matthew explicitly anchors the meaning of Jesus in the overarching liberation narrative of the Hebrew Bible. Which also ties our entire biblical ethic to the treatment of the stranger/refugee. Over and over again, the Hebrew Bible grounds ethical imperatives in the memory of what it was like to be a slave and a refugee. Beginning in this passage, and continuing through his whole gospel, Matthew intentionally links Jesus to this Hebraic thread of liberation.
And perhaps the story isn’t as implausible as it seems. Herod’s violent emotional instability and intense jealousy are well documented, and he did conduct a “rein of terror” during that time, killing anyone perceived to be a threat to his rule, including three of his own children. The number of boys under two in the small hill town of Bethlehem wouldn’t have been more than a dozen, so it isn’t inconceivable that this event wasn’t significant enough for historians, in the context of Herod’s much larger atrocities across the region, which were well-documented.
Egypt at that time was a safe neighboring country with a large and prosperous Jewish population. It was beyond Herod’s reach, but not too far away, and as we know, it had been the preferred place of refuge for Israelites throughout biblical times. The Holy Family probably only stayed in Egypt for a few months, because history tells us that Herod died shortly thereafter. Perhaps they used the gold and frankincense and myrrh to finance their travels.
The text itself doesn’t dwell for long on the massacred babies and toddlers of Bethlehem, but in church tradition, these children have actually been quite important. They are considered the very first Christian martyrs and are commemorated in liturgical churches on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, just a few days after Christmas, which oddly is traditionally celebrated by merrymaking for children.
We might be tempted to glide our eyes over those horrible verses, as if they are just collateral damage in the wake of the main plotline, in which our hero and his parents narrowly escape to safety in Egypt. But Matthew is doing something very interesting here, that bears pondering. He explicitly connects the Bethlehemite children and their grieving parents with the lamentation of Rachel in Jeremiah 31. The verse quoted by Matthew about Rachel weeping in Ramah captures the grief of the Hebrew nation as it was taken into exile in Babylon – the people were gathered and organized for the long march of deportation in the town of Ramah, just north of Jerusalem, quite near the modern-day Qalandiya checkpoint. The wailing of a mother for her children who have been killed or exiled – it’s easy to see why Matthew would have evoked this wrenching verse in his reader’s imagination. But his readers would also have known that this particular verse, Jeremiah 31:15, is set in the middle of one of the most hopeful chapters in the entire Bible, all about the return of the Hebrew people from the Babylonian exile and the inauguration of the new covenant that is so central to Quaker spirituality. Indeed, the very next sentence after the one Matthew quoted reads “Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.” So in including this quote from Jeremiah, Matthew has done two things at once – he has validated the intense suffering inflicted by Herod’s obscene and irrational slaying of all the children, and he has also reminded us of the promise of restoration and healing signified by the return of a refugee – the return of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon, and the return of Jesus and his parents from their asylum in Egypt.
Is this actually a story of hope, in addition to trauma? What did the original hearers of this text feel? Where did they see themselves in the story?
There are many ways to engage with a Biblical text, but one of my favorites is an Ignatian practice of using your sensory/emotional imagination to place yourself in the story. Who do you identify with? Who are you standing next to? What do you see? What do you feel? You may find yourself positioned quite differently in the same story at different times in your life. Where do you find yourself in this story, today?