by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Alberta, Canada
Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23
Many people have this far too romantic and idealistic notion that Christmas has to be perfect. Such people have the tendency to dwell on the sentimental aspects of Christmas as an escape from the harsh, cold realities of life in this world. The truth of the matter is that the powers of evil were actively at work when Christ was born and they are still actively at work today. Yes, even at Christmas time, there are countless, untold stories of child abuse, torture and even murder—most of these stories don't make it into the news. Today, our gospel would have us focus on the stories of such children, just as we focus on the Christ-Child. So, let me indulge you a little today, as we remember the far too many children around the globe who have suffered and continue to suffer from the powers of evil.
Gnanaguru Aravinthan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, was just 13 years old when his father last saw him in September 1985. He had been sent home by his father to change his clothes. He was then supposed to meet his father at a friend's house. Gnanguru never arrived. Neighbours told the father they had seen his son in the custody of soldiers from a nearby army camp. However, when he went to the camp he was told the boy had not been arrested.
Nahaman Carmon, 13, was a street child in Guatemala City. Early on the morning of March 4, 1990, he was sniffing glue, as a means of quelling hunger, with a group of other street children. They were then surrounded by the police, who poured glue over their heads and reportedly kicked Nahaman viciously. He was later treated in the intensive care unit at the hospital and operated on for a ruptured liver. He died on March 14 without regaining consciousness.
Three-year-old Clesio Pereira de Souza of Brazil was riding on his father's shoulders when he was shot in the back by gunmen, who then shot his father in the head at point-blank range. The killings were carried out by gunmen believed to have been hired by men claiming the land cultivated by the local peasant community. When his mother tried to report the case, the police chief alleged he could not record it as he had no pen or paper.1
Far too many parents are wailing and lamenting today for their children and they refuse to be consoled because they've lost their children to forced child labour projects where the children are treated like slaves; they've lost their children to terrorist militias who force young children to kill their own people or themselves be killed if they refuse; they've lost their children to the makers of pornography and child prostitution and sometimes the pimps kidnap and market these children to another country so that the parents never see them again. Such are the harsh, cold realities of the world today. In this sense, nothing much has changed under the sun. Far too often it seems that the powers of evil are winning.
If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. But they lived in El Salvador in the 1980s. They lived in one of the outlying villages, and the guerrilla war raged in the communities around them and often in their own.
If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. But they were not safe, not even in their own homes. They were Christians, and their mom and dad had a picture of Pope John Paul II on one wall and a crucifix on another. These pictures made their home suspect.
If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. In Mexico, their lives would not have been in danger. In Spain or France, they would have been safe. But in El Salvador in the 1980s, mothers, fathers, teens, children, even babies were murdered. All Christians were suspected of being subversives, and the killing of innocent children was a powerful signal to other Christians in the area that their lives were also in danger. The death of the innocent ones was used as a threat against their elders.
Martyrs. Innocent, young martyrs. All because Jesus was in their midst.2
In today's gospel, we learn that the celebration of Christmas in not so pretty, romantic or idealistic. Rather, we learn through this divine drama in three acts that life in this world can be very dangerous. Life in this world can be cruel. Life in this world can be subject to evil plots, schemes and acts orchestrated by power hungry people who themselves are possessed by evil and rely on evil to protect their power and status.
In the first act of this divine drama, God speaks to Joseph in a dream through an angel, a messenger of God, commanding him to: "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." WOW! What a message! No romantic or idealistic picture of Christmas here! Rather, we have the harsh, cold reality of a tyrant ruler, Herod, who is determined to shed innocent blood. He's doing everything possible to kill the Christ-Child. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod was an extremely cruel man, who seems to of had no problems ruling by evil means. …Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons (even Caesar in Rome is reported to have said it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son); and at his burial, one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn.3 However, Herod did not manage to kill Jesus. Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt and lived there as refugees until after it was safe to return back to the Promised Land, after Herod had died, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
I wonder what life was like for Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Egypt. After all, there was the history, along with its memories of Israel in Egyptian slavery. It may have been risky to go back to Egypt. Would they as refugees be safe there? Or would they be giving up one oppressive ruler for another oppressive ruler? Could Joseph really trust God's messenger and the message? What would life be like in Egypt? Could they adjust to life as refugees in a land where their ancestors were slaves? Were they destined to be slaves like their ancestors? Such may have been Joseph's thoughts as he set out for Egypt. If only there were more dreams like Joseph's. If only there were more messengers of God instructing poor, vulnerable people in the world today. If only there were more refugees finding safe places to flee to and live for a time. If only there were more innocent lives saved—especially the lives of children.
As the second act of our divine drama unfolds, we are told that Herod was infuriated when he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. So "he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under." According to Matthew, this fulfilled the nightmare, tragic prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, which warned: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." There are far too many Rachels in our world today. There are far too many mothers of children who were innocent and have been brutally abused, tortured and killed. As some of you may know, to lose a child is one of the most difficult losses, the most tragic of deaths that we can face. How much more difficult it must be if one loses a child by evil means. How might we as followers of Jesus have compassion on the Rachels of today? Might we share the love of Christ with them by walking with them in their wailing and lamentation? Perhaps we can be God's messengers for such parents.
In the third act of the gospel's divine drama today, once again Joseph has two more dreams and God's messenger speaks to him, instructing him first of all that the tyrant Herod has died and now it's safe to return back to Israel. And, in the second dream, Joseph was warned not to settle in Judea, where Herod's son Archelaus now ruled, and was almost as cruel as Herod. Rather, Joseph was instructed to go to Nazareth in the district of Galilee and live with Mary and Jesus there.
This third act of the divine drama reminds us that the Herods of this world do not prevail. Sooner or later they lose their power. Sooner or later they die. Today, as we remember the Christ-Child and the danger he was in, and his flight into Egypt as a refugee; we also pause and remember today all of the children in this world who have been or who are right now being abused, tortured, murdered or living somewhere as refugees. We remember too the parents of these children. One day, these children and their parents shall be first in the kingdom of heaven. One day they shall be healed and restored completely from their sufferings and their grief. One day when the Christ-Child shall become King of kings and Lord of lords, all tyrants; all the Herods of this world shall be no more. One day King Jesus shall destroy all evil powers completely and rule eternally in perfect peace and love. And that's worth celebrating during this season of Christmas and every season! Amen.
1 Cited from a letter I received written by Paul Bentley, former President, Amnesty International, Canada Section, English Speaking, 1990.
2 Emphasis, Vol. 5, No. 4, November-December 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 67.
3 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book XVII, written between 66-74 AD. This citation is from: David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 25.
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