Traditional societies are usually ordered with some kind of clan chief, or lord, or king at the apex of things. You might imagine all the king has to do is raise an eyebrow or snap his fingers, and slaves would feed him cherries and fill up his wine glass.
But you know, the king was often in a very insecure position. Frequently, there were others who thought they could do a better job. Since there were no elections, and a king had to die to be replaced, it wasn’t unusual for there to be plotting and scheming behind the scenes. A lot of plotting and scheming! (Sounds like the Australian political scene…)
King Herod the Great wasn’t in a safe position. He wasn’t popular, not by a long shot. He’d been given the throne by the Romans, not the Jews, and he’d had to fight for it. He had half a dozen fortresses in which to hide away if he need to; three were in Jerusalem, Caesarea and Masada, all places some of us went to earlier in the year. He killed anyone he suspected of plotting against him, including his wife Mariamne and a son. When he knew he was about to die, he ordered that political prisoners should be executed so that there would be grief and mourning once he was dead.
This is the political background of the first Christmas. It is central to Matthew’s version of the story of the Nativity, which is really quite different from Luke’s; only Matthew talks about the wise men, Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the Innocents, and the Holy Family going down to Egypt. Matthew is doing this to tell us something very important in his story: firstly, that Jesus is greater than Moses; and secondly, that he is the Son of God, the true fulfilment of everything an Israelite was meant to be.
Let’s look at that in more detail another time. For today, I just want to point out that in Matthew’s story Jesus is a refugee, an asylum seeker, an illegal immigrant. His family had to escape persecution, and they found a refuge in Egypt of all places.
Interestingly, the places that take the most refugees these days are also in the Middle East; over two million have fled Syria, and are in camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa. On a global scale, very few asylum seekers come to Australia. From what we hear on the news, you’d think we were the number one destination.
Jesus survives Herod’s sword, but the other young boys of Bethlehem do not survive. We call them the Holy Innocents, and yesterday (28th) was the day they are remembered in the Church Year.
Understandably, this is one bit of the Christmas story we prefer not to look at. We want Christmas to be about happy children, not sad. We want it to be about family, presents and food, not suffering children.
But when we open our eyes, we know there’s more. Christmas is about God coming into a world in rebellion, and the welcome God received—a warm welcome from the poor, rejection from the rich and the righteous. Christmas was the first step God took on the way to Calvary. Unlike Herod, Jesus was not afraid to lose power. His way was to make himself poor, that we may be rich. It was to empty himself, even to death on a cross. Being an asylum seeker was just the beginning.
We’ve had a 17th-century Russian icon before us this morning. What do you see?
Like a lot of icons or other pieces of art, the people are dressed in contemporary (17-century Russian!) clothes. And also like many icons, there are several scenes.
The main scene has Joseph leading Mary and the baby on a donkey toward Egypt. He has their possessions slung over his shoulder, she is sitting sidesaddle and breastfeeding Jesus who is dressed in swaddling clothes.
At the top right, we see a smaller scene, in which an angel warns Joseph in a dream to leave because Herod wants the baby dead.
But what do you see at the bottom? According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_into_Egypt),
…the bottom section shows the idols of Egypt miraculously falling down before Jesus and being smashed.
Is that what you see? I don’t see that at all, I think whoever saw that was fooling themselves.
I see an empty stable at the left—perhaps only recently-vacated, it looks like there’s an open gate—and scenes of mayhem over most of the section. It depicts the terrible fate of the other small boys in Bethlehem.
What do you see, what do you hear?
Do we see the children suffering? Or do we see something more comforting, like the idols of Egypt collapsing before Jesus?
What do we allow ourselves to see? Do we see the joys and the sorrows of life at Christmas time? Do we bury our heads in the sand? Or are we fooling ourselves, like the Wikipedia writer who couldn’t see the suffering children?
Christmas is a time for us to see all children. Not just the happy ones, the fortunate ones, but the suffering ones also. Disabled children, sick children, children in foster homes, children whose young lives are being wasted in poverty. But more particularly, as well as more controversially, we need to see refugee children, asylum seeker children, ‘illegal’ children, whose lives are blighted and deformed in the hell of a detention centre.
Christmas is for them too. See them, pray for them, reach out to them, advocate for them not just at Christmas but throughout 2014, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. He came for them too.