When we talk about the first Christian family, we often talk only about the baby Jesus and his mother, Mary. This may be because the Gospels tell us very little about Joseph. We know he was a carpenter. Artists throughout the centuries have portrayed him as significantly older than the teenaged Mary; we often marvel at the stamina it took for Joseph to plunge head first into the confusing and exciting and scary situation presented to him in dream after dream by Godly angels. Our scripture for today, from the gospel of Matthew, comes after the Biblical stories that explain Joseph’s engagement to Mary, his understandable distress about her premarital pregnancy, and the first angelic appearance to calm Joseph’s doubts and explain Jesus’ role as Savior. This morning’s passage from Matthew tells of the flight to Egypt, when Joseph saved his son the savior by protecting him from Herod.
We also know that Joseph is descended from the house of David, which allows Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophecies that the Messiah would come from King David’s line. The Bible tells us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but the Bible also references Joseph as Jesus’ “father”. This creates a level of uncertainty about Joseph’s role. Then Joseph disappears completely from the Gospels after the time Jesus is left behind at the temple, when he is twelve years old. Joseph’s absence from accounts of Jesus’ public life has been interpreted by most biblical scholars to mean that he died before Jesus began his teaching and public ministry. Our opportunities to get to know Joseph within the biblical witness are quite few.
Throughout history, church historians and theologians often lifted up Joseph as an example of the kind of father who parented “by love and service”. Early Franciscan scholars downplayed Joseph’s lack of biological connection to Jesus, instead focusing on the obvious parental nature of his actions. Jean Gerson, a leader in the 15th century French church, characterized Joseph as giving “all the care that a good and loyal and wise father can and should show to his true son.” Joseph speaks to us today because “after Mary, he was the first Christian, a model believer,” says Father Joseph Chorpenning of St. Joseph’s University.
Today’s scripture passage is the Biblical “version” of post-partum depression. After the warmth and glow of Christmas – the excitement caused by the arrival of a new baby – today is the Sunday that reality sets in. For most new parents, this is when you discover that your meek and mild infant is a terribly colicky baby. This is when you wonder how someone who weighs less than ten pounds can truly turn your whole house, your whole life, completely upside down. You think you will never sleep again, you will never spend time with your spouse again, and you will never have an adult conversation again. But for Mary and Joseph, the situation is much more dramatic. They discover that their baby, meek and mild, is causing political uproar and Herod, the leader of the nation, is attempting to murder all baby boys. Instead of spending time getting to know their son, they suddenly find themselves as refugees, struggling to protect their child in a strange land. It is not a natural or ordinary start to their family life.
Four years ago, my family (Brett and I), were in the midst of our own new baby excitement. But we weren’t in a hospital room or even a stable – we were on an airplane. No, Thomas was not born on an airplane (though he would probably think that was cool, if it were true). We were flying to Guatemala to meet our son for the first time and to complete the paperwork to finalize his adoption. It was only a few days before Christmas, and the 747 we boarded in Houston was beyond crowded. The plane had been overbooked, and everyone attempting to travel to Central America for the holidays seemed to be in line to get on our plane. Christmas packages, luggage, food, noisy, crying children, and boisterous, excited adults – all of us were together in the congested aisles of Continental Flight #463 from Houston to Guatemala City.
But amid all the chaos, I felt apart from the crowd – like my heart was in my throat – I couldn’t believe that I would be meeting my son for the first time in just a few short hours. I sat in my seat closest to the aisle, trying to breath and trying not to cry. And then, suddenly, I WAS crying. But not from deep emotion, but rather deep pain. A man attempting to maneuver a giant duffle bag up the aisle of the plane managed to whack me upside the head. I found myself instantly surrounded by flight attendants, one of whom decided she wanted to remove me from the plane and have me seek medical attention.
But I was not going to get off that plane. We had our baby to meet for the first time – after waiting so long for him; I was not willing to wait for the next flight. With an improvised ice pack against my head, I went forth to become a mother. Later that day, Brett and I stepped onto an elevator in our hotel. I held my sleeping son in my arms. The inside walls of the elevator were mirrored on all sides, so as we were alone as a family for the first time, we looked at the image of the three of us, reproduced via infinite reflection. That image will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Sometimes people say to me, when they meet Thomas and his sister, Lily, for the first time, “Are these your natural children? Are they your real children? Are they really sister and brother?” The implication, sometimes communicated more explicitly than others, is that because our kids did not come to us in the “natural” way, that we must not really, or fully, love them. But then I see the love of Joseph for his son, Jesus. Talk about not joining a family in the natural way – the unlikely union of Mary, Joseph and their son, Jesus is the very family on which all of Christianity places its foundation. Yes, they are my real children. Yes, Joseph really loved his son.
This text from Matthew, the first one we hear after Christmas, is quite a gruesome text, really. Already, on our first Sunday after Christmas, we are reminded of the need for Christ’s birth among us, into the world ruled by sin and sorrow. In today’s reading, we see a jealous Herod trying to end the life of the Christ child before his saving work and ministry even begins. Though Jesus’ life was spared, scripture tells us that all the other children in and around Bethlehem who were less than two years old, were killed. Already, less than a week away from Christmas, we are looking ahead to the culmination and conclusion of Jesus’ life, when he died and rose again, in order to bring new life to all people.
This story from Matthew is remembered as the Feast of the Holy Innocents within many Christian traditions. It is not an accident that this day, which commemorates of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, follows so close upon Christmas: the two are deeply interconnected. The Christ child is only half a story – a full reading of both the story of Christ’s birth and then this story – together they confront us with not only the joy and promise of Christmas, but its cost and its redemptive agony. Parents know what agony can be. Matthew remembers the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The birth of Jesus was a powerful challenge to the world. Herod does not take the news of the birth of a potential opponent lightly – our Christmas readings remind us of how Herod tricked the Magi into sharing the whereabouts of the baby Jesus by claiming that he also wanted to go and visit the “newborn king” in order to pay him homage. We can almost hear the ominous music in the background – “Wait”, we long to yell at the Magi, “don’t tell Herod about the baby Jesus!”
Anywhere, at any time in history, when children are hurting or in danger, things are not right. It is never “natural” for children to be ill or in harm’s way. This scripture passage from Matthew reminds us that Christmas does not stop on that “silent, holy night” when Christ was born. Lutheran pastor and the preaching professor at Union Seminary in New York, Edmund Steimle reminds us that the Christmas stories are not children’s stories, they are “…adult stories for adult Christians…”. The purpose of these Christmas stories, as recorded by the authors of the gospels, is to remind us that the silent, holy night of unnatural calm that we celebrate on Christmas is really the point of the eye of the storm. Chaos and danger and violence lurk at the edges of our Bible.
When we read from the Gospel of Matthew, we have to remember that Matthew was writing from a post-resurrection perspective – he was not writing an eyewitness account of the flight of Joseph and family to Egypt – but was instead looking back at the events in the knowledge that Jesus was, indeed, the Savior and the Resurrected One. Again, not a particularly “natural” point of view…
Human rights’ activist Dorothy Day once said that your family is whoever “shows up”. And Joseph – we can see through our lens on this side of the resurrection – Joseph showed up and what we all remember is that he came and did what was right by his family, ‘natural’ or not. The Bible does not preach the message, “Do what comes naturally.” Hardly. If God could rely on our natural instincts, we wouldn’t need Christ as our savior…
While listening to Garrison Keilor on A Prairie Home Companion a couple of years ago, actress Meryl Streep appeared as a guest and read the following poem, written by Julia Kasdorf:
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewing even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
I love this poem because it reminds me of the church family. It makes me think of my deacons, or anyone, really, providing care in the name of Christ. In Christ, we are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. We are called, in this fallen and fearful world, to offer comfort and care and maybe a little bit of cake… I love this line from the poem: “Like a doctor, I learned to create from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once you know how to do this, you can never refuse.” We are a family – all of us – brothers and sisters in Christ. We can never refuse to comfort one another or to protect one another, as Joseph protected his holy and precious family.
The eye of the storm is small and fleeting. And as we stand here, poised to begin another year in a world plagued with violence and destruction and fear, this Christmas season allows us to catch our breath and renew our hope in the one who comes and is coming to bring a lasting and holy peace. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. We remember today, O God, all the children throughout the world who need your protection and care. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs those who would harm others. We ask you to establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.