Of all the images we have in our minds of Jesus, which dominate? The good shepherd? The healer? The crucified Christ? Christ risen from death? Traditionally at Christmas we’ve been encouraged to imagine Jesus as a plump baby surrounded by festive trimmings! If so, the Gospel reading we heard on the last Sunday of 2019 (Matthew chapter 2 verses 13 to 18) jolts us out of our cocoon and shines a spotlight upon the stark and painful realities of the world that God in Jesus entered and shared.
In the bit of Jesus’ birth story we understandably omit from nativity plays, we encounter a ruler (Herod) incited to acts of violence even against his own people. Here are tiny babies and small infants slaughtered in the name of supposed political stability. And here is the plight of a displaced family, fleeing violence and seeking refuge in a foreign country – not just on one occasion, but twice over.
The story offers us a strong image of the infant Christ as a refugee in a very insecure and dangerous world – not a million miles from our own. Until we stare into this Gospel and face both its horror and the uncomfortable image of Christ that it offers, we aren’t ready even to begin to grasp the magnificent and frightening truth of the incarnation – God with us: with us here in this complex, unjust and war-torn world. We proclaim God in Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, and we catch his reflection in the faces of the most vulnerable of our world.
Traditionally this story has been referred to as the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the holy innocents. There is a raw irony in the way in which Herod, the king, maintained and protected by the power of the Roman Empire, is so frightened of losing power that he turns to murdering the most powerless in society – small children – in order to shore himself up.
It is a challenging story to hear at the start of a new year but relevant because the story, as we tend to do when an old year ends and a new one begins, looks both backwards and forwards. The story reminds us of the story of Moses who himself was saved from infant slaughter by the bravery of his mother, thus enabling him in adulthood to lead his people from slavery. The church has also seen in the massacre of these children a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus which is to come. Even if the innocents, unlike Jesus himself, had no choice in the matter, the Church has traditionally wanted to see in the face of these little ones a picture of Jesus himself, saving others by his death.
The story challenges us to ask ourselves what images of Jesus we are most ready to hold. What if we imagined Jesus not as the kindly elder brother or the victorious king in glory, but as the one dying on the cross, or as the small innocent child screaming as the bombs fall? The story also challenges us to ask what kind of world we want: one where the innocent suffer at the hands of tyrants or one where people are free to dream their dreams and live in freedom and prosperity?
May God gives us vision and strength to walk the way of Jesus throughout this new year and so may we individually and collectively live the life of Jesus today.
Nicola, Cam and Ross join me in thanking you for all your good and kind wishes at Christmas and join me in sending you greetings for 2020.
With love and prayers