“He thought on these things”
In terms of the infancy narratives in Christmastide, should we be so wedded to such a linear way of thinking, we have yet to get to Bethlehem! Apart from Joseph and Mary and her first-born son, the only other visitors to Bethlehem in the readings for this past week have been those whom Herod sent forth who “slew all the children that were in Bethlehem,” a gruesome, yet significant and important Christmas story, and one that is largely overlooked and ignored in our contemporary celebrations of Christmas. It is, perhaps, somewhat remembered by way of the carol, Puer Nobis Nascitur, “Unto us a Child is Born”, in the verse “Herod then with fear was filled:/ ‘A prince’, he said, ‘in Jewry!’/ All the little boys he killed /At Bethlem in his fury.” Not exactly the most familiar and comfortable of carols yet profoundly concise about this aspect of the Christmas mystery.
No, in the narrative sequence of the Christmastide Gospel readings, it will actually only be tomorrow on The Octave Day of Christmas that the Shepherds, the representatives of our common humanity, will actually “now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.” Even the Christmas angels, it seems, were only in the countryside round about Jerusalem, the one announcing to the Shepherds about the sign of “good tidings of great joy” in the birth of a Saviour in the city of David, “who is Christ the Lord”, only to be joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, good will toward men.”All rich and wonderful words and saying, events and thoughts, which illumine for us something of the mystery of Bethlehem, the mystery of Christ’s nativity. All about its meaning and significance, and less about a linear account. All about the radical and disturbing meaning of the Incarnation and its deep joy for us in the redemption of our humanity which it reveals and makes known.
But only through the compelling way in which we are drawn into the mystery – through its significance and meaning first and then in terms of the narrative sequence. Today we have Matthew’s account of the infancy narrative and yet, even with Matthew we do not get to Bethlehem. We – meaning aspects of our humanity who witness to the birth in some way or another – don’t get to Bethlehem until the coming of the Magi/Kings. And they are, to be sure, both the proverbial “Come-From-Aways” as well as the “Johnny-Come-Latelies”. But with Matthew’s account today, we confront what appears to be a scandal. It is not too much to say that his account presents us with more than one scandal, humanly speaking. With Matthew we see a certain intellectual wrestling with extraordinary matters all of which belong to the theological mystery of the Incarnation.
The collect for today, the Sunday after Christmas Day, from The Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962):
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
The Epistle: Galatians 4:1-7
The Gospel: St Matthew 1:18-25
Artwork: Domenico Guidi, The Dream of St. Joseph, 1686. Marble, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.
The collect for today, the commemoration of John Wycliffe, (c 1320-84), Scholar, Translator of the Scriptures into English (source):
O Lord, thou God of truth, whose Word is a lantern to our feet and a light upon our path: We give thee thanks for thy servant John Wyclif, and those who, following in his steps, have labored to render the Holy Scriptures in the language of the people; and we beseech thee that thy Holy Spirit may overshadow us as we read the written Word, and that Christ, the living Word, may transform us according to thy righteous will; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
The Lesson: Daniel 2:17-24
The Gospel: St. Matthew 13:9-16
Artwork: Ford Madox Brown, John Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt, 1847-61. Oil on canvas, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums.
The collect for today, the Feast of St. Thomas Becket (1117-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr (source):
O Lord God,
who gavest to thy servant Thomas Becket
grace to put aside all earthly fear and be faithful even unto death:
grant that we, caring not for worldly esteem,
may fight against evil,
uphold thy rule,
and serve thee to our life’s end;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
The Epistle: 1 Timothy 6:11-16
The Gospel: St. Luke 12:37-43
Thomas Becket was a close personal friend of King Henry II of England and served as his chancellor from 1155. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1162, Henry, seeing an opportunity to exercise control over the church, decided to have his chancellor elected to the post. Thomas saw the dangers of the king’s plan and warned Henry that, if he became archbishop, his first loyalty would be to God and not the king. He told Henry, “Several things you do in prejudice of the rights of the church make me fear that you would require of me what I could not agree to.” What Thomas feared soon came to pass.
After becoming archbishop, Thomas changed radically from defender of the king’s privileges and policies into an ardent champion of the church. Unexpectedly adopting an austere way of life in near-monastic simplicity, he celebrated or attended Mass daily, studied Scripture, distributed alms to the needy, and visited the sick. He became just as obstinate in asserting the church’s interests as he had formerly been in asserting the king’s.
Thomas rejected Henry’s claim to authority over the English Church. Relations with the king deteriorated so seriously that Thomas left England and spent six years in exile in France. He realised that he had to return when the Archbishop of York and six other bishops crowned the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, in contravention of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rights and authority.
He returned to England with letters of papal support and immediately excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the six other bishops. On Christmas Day 1170 he publicly denounced them from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral. It was these actions that prompted Henry’s infamous angry words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
“Herod … slew all the children that were in Bethlehem”
Christmas is for children, it is frequently said and rightly so bearing in mind that we are all the children of God and especially at this holy time when God became a little child. And yet, so much for children in our violent and brutal world where the innocent little ones are all too frequently the casualties and victims of horrendous acts of violence. And so, too, in the Christmas story.
The most troubling scene in the Old Testament, it seems to me, is the story of the Levite’s concubine. Abused and ravaged, she dies with her hands outstretched on the threshold of her master’s house; her body then cut up and circulated to all of the tribes of Israel as witness to the collective betrayal of the Law and of the universal laws of hospitality, the like of which had never before been seen in Israel. But the most troubling scene in the New Testament, it seems to me, is the story of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, killed because of Herod’s envy and fear about a rival King, on the one hand, and out of unbridled power without truth, without justice, without compassion, without restraint, on the other hand. Just so it speaks to our disordered world.
That this story belongs to the Christmas mystery is itself most telling and most moving. If it is the most troubling scene, it is also one of the most moving. It shatters all of our sentimental nonsense about Christmas. In this story we confront the deeper meaning of Christ’s Incarnation and face the realities of human wickedness, then and now. We don’t want to hear it and many are utterly unaware of it. And yet it marks the last of the three special Holy Days of Christmas, all of which comment upon the deeper meaning of Christ’s holy birth.
At issue, I suppose, is whether we are up to pondering this mystery. Almost universally overlooked, this story more than any other speaks directly and powerfully to the worst of the worst in our sad and troubled world, fractured and broken, violent and destructive. Christmas by virtue of this Christmas story is not a distraction but a condemnation of human folly and its violence. None of us escape this story. It belongs to the sad and sorry pageant of human violence, to the continuing spectacles of genocide and destruction that more than any other age belong to the story of the last one hundred years. It speaks as well to all of the deaths of the little ones in the name of convenience and expediency however complicated and complex the context. To ponder this story is to enter more fully into the Christmas mystery such that joys tinged by sorrow are deepened into faith and worship.