Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas for the sad & grieving

I just read the article in USAToday regarding the understandable sadness and gloom many families who have loved ones lost, wounded and/or traumatized at Fort Hood, due to the massacre, during what should be the joyous Christmas season, celebrating the infant Jesus, our Savior, being born. People are hurting, for many reasons, this Christmas. Here is my advice.

While Christmas, the celebrated Nativity of Jesus Christ, is a moment of great joy, most assuredly the most blessed gift by God to humanity, on that day or, rather, later in the week, it was not an occasion of unaffected joy. I'm not referring to the bogus story line of the "poor baby" or the "homeless" family, the secular, politically correct spin that ultimately destroys the message of that time. No, what I am referring to is that a mere several days after the birth of Jesus the Holy Family had to flee to save his life from slaying by King Herod. Not only that, the Holy Family, Joseph and Mary, and of course Jesus, would have known that King Herod slaughtered many male infants during that week, hoping that one of them would be the Savior himself. Christmas for the Holy Family was never about "family," "gift giving," or peace and joy. They held the promise of all of that and more in their arms, in the form of the Infant Jesus, but at that "first Christmas" they witnessed the first little martyrs, babies being torn from their parents' arms and dashed on the ground, cut to pieces by sword.

Matthew 2:13-23

But when they [the Magi who had brought gifts to the baby Jesus and who had been questioned by Herod] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, "Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee. For Herod will seek the child to destroy him." So he arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and withdrew into Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod; that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, Out of Egypt I called my son [Matthew is citing Osee 11:1].

Then Herod, seeing that he had been tricked by the Magi, was exceedingly angry; and he sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem and all its neighborhood who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had carefully ascertained from the Magi. Then was fulfilled what was spoken through Jeremias the prophet, A voice was heard in Rama, weeping and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted for they are no more [Matthew is citing Jeremiah 31:15].

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." So he arose and took the child and his mother and went into the land of Israel. But hearing that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there; and being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee. And he went and settled in a town called Nazareth; and there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

In Sunday school at the church I attend last week, one of the well read and long studied God and Bible loving women commented that Mary must have been so proud when Jesus was born. I gently corrected her and said, "How can that be, when mere days after he was born they had to flee for his life, knowing that innocent children were slaughtered behind them as Herod killed all who might have been Jesus with impunity?" Pride and "first Christmas joy" were the last emotions that Joseph and Mary would have felt. They had to worry about Jesus being killed only a few days after birth, and then for years after that.

Friends, those of you who are sad and suffering, burdened with grief, illness, poverty or oppression, must understand that Jesus himself, and his parents, never had "Baby's first Christmas," or even the second Christmas, or the third... Take comfort in knowing that you are struggling through an emotional hardship just as Jesus himself did, for he was born into a world not yet ready to have a "Happy" or "Merry" Christmas. His birth was celebrated by an evil King slaughtering all the boy infants of two years old or under in the neighborhood that had hosted Jesus' birth only a few days before. A Merry Christmas is the right thing to strive for, but remember that is also, like Jesus, a gift from God to a world that is not quite ready to deserve it, apparently.

So draw near spiritually to the Holy Family this Christmas, those of you who are grieving, who have experienced losses and you will be comforted by thinking of them as they actually were: on the run with a baby that a jealous King sought to kill and just to be "sure" he had, he killed all the baby sons in the neighborhood. Herod did not try to kill Jesus due to theology, or at the behest of Satan. No, he killed for the same reasons humans killed before and continue to do today: for power and control over others. Herod was afraid of being unseated in his political power.

Yet Jesus was born directly into danger, but not without protection, for God sent his angel to guide Joseph's steps. Notice the obedience of Joseph who at every time he received word from the angel of the Lord, he "arose" and immediately obeyed. Joseph also used his own leadership in recognizing that the son of Herod was an equal danger, and then received confirmation of that from the angel of the Lord.

People today often think that it was a giddy time of joy and pride for Joseph and Mary, when Jesus was born, and little could be further from the truth, as the events documented in the scripture shows.

However, there is nothing wrong with celebrating in the present the Nativity of Jesus with joy, happiness, fellowship, presents, overeating, and all the other festive events. But one would not be accurate to imagine that Jesus or his holy parents had such an experience, and not because of their presumed poverty and displacement from an inn while traveling. No, they had only a few days to marvel at the birth of Jesus until they were immediately put on the run by one of the most notorious baby killers of human history, Herod. They would have felt little pride or joy as word reached them that many grieved the slaughter of their infant sons.

So lean on them, those of you who mourn, and marvel that they persevered through such sorrow and persecution, and seek their spiritual consolation for your sadness. Those of you who do not sorrow but who seek deeper understanding of God, and of the Savior Jesus Christ, remember that a festive Nativity, a Merry Christmas, is a modern gift from God, but not a reenactment of the grim times that followed the birth of Jesus in actuality.

Osee 11:1,4,5
When Israel was child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son...I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer...he shall return to the land of Egypt...

The Bible is always read at two levels. One is the actual current reality which, in this passage from Osee, who was a prophet living seven hundred plus years before Jesus was born, who is chiding the faithlessness of the Israelites. But because scripture is the word of God, it must also be read with the understanding that much of what is current is also applicable and prophetic for the future, particularly when it comes to how humanity will be redeemed by the Messiah. Thus Matthew and the other disciples and Apostles would have learned from Jesus (and also through their own knowledge of scripture) which passages were fulfilled and completed in Jesus beyond their original reference when they were written. God is basically telling Osee that just as the patriarch Israel went to and from Egypt, treated as a son by God, someday his actual Son, the Messiah "shall return to the land of Egypt." If you read all of Osee 11 you will see this dual purpose of God's word, comforting them in the time of the exile to Babylon, but also forward looking to the Messiah with prophetic words.

Jeremiah 31:15-17
Thus says the Lord: In Rama is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping! Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more. Thus says the Lord: Cease your cries of mourning, wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward, says the Lord, they shall return from the enemy's land. There is hope for your future, says the Lord; your sons shall return to their own borders.

Again, you see the dual purpose, the present and the future hope and promise, of what the Lord says in scripture either directly or through his prophets, in this case Jeremiah. At some point Matthew and the other disciples would have recalled this scripture and understood that it applied both to the actual time of Jeremiah, but also to the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. "The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward" refers to not only earthly consolation but also eternal consolation.

Special "hi" and "hey" again to the young people. I hope you have found too this to be helpful in helping you to understand how Christmas "really was," and thus regain some of the appreciation of the profundity of the Nativity. At Christmas each year we remember this greatest gift from God, the birth of Jesus, but place it in its true and actual historical context, not as a mishmash of sentimentalizing secular aspects, such as their "poverty" and "homelessness." This was about Jesus as Messiah, Savior and true King, so filled with authority from God that a human king, Herod, sought to kill him at birth simply from jealousy. Each Christmas people must ponder, has humanity changed and improved in this regard at all? At this point I'd not bet on it as spiritual envy is more powerful than ever, right along King Herod's secular envy. Pray for more truth and humility to defeat the snares of pride, which leads to infant killing and even worse, the loss of soul.