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Nativity Disquieted

Matthew 2:13-23
Preached at University Presbyterian Church
January 1, 2017
Reverend Elizabeth Michael

            When I was a child, there was one December tradition that heralded the coming of Christmas in a way no other did.  Some day early in Advent, my mother would announce that it was time to set up the nativity scene, and my three siblings and I would gather around the large cardboard box packed with small figures, each individually wrapped in Kleenex.  My mom would tell us again how the nativity scene had been a part of our family since the first Christmas she and my dad were married.  We would smile at the familiar story of her coveting the sweet figures in the store and how hard Dad worked to buy it without her knowing and then surprising her on Christmas morning.  Then my mom would take the lid off of the big box, and one by one, my siblings and I would peer into it and remove a tissue-clad figure, gently peeling away its layers to reveal the delicate porcelain within.

The usual cast of characters was there—gentle Mary, strong and silent Joseph, a shepherd boy, three kings bearing gifts, a sweet cow, a tired camel, an open-mouthed cherub, and, of course, the baby Jesus.  Although the figures were very likely made in China, they look decidedly Scandinavian—fair skinned, wide-blue eyes, pink cheeks, and expressions of unmistakable calm on their pre-pubescent faces.  As if to prove just how peaceable the kingdom was that night, the designer of the nativity had added to the halo-clad baby Jesus a baby bluebird and a baby squirrel who perched contentedly on the edge of the manger, the icing on the cake of childhood innocence.  So on that special day each December, my siblings and I would unwrap each figure with care and almost hold our breath as we nestled them, one by one, into the stable strewn with straw.  Then we would sit back to take in the whole scene and find ourselves caught up in the awe and hush of that silent, holy night.

And so it was that in early December, these delicate, porcelain figures rooted themselves on a chest in my family’s living room, their perpetual smiles guarding over all of our going out and coming in.  On occasion, I would creep in to gaze at the baby Jesus, who rested gently in his manger and basked in the radiant glow of those who had gathered to adore him.  And well on into the new year, that sweet nativity emanated peace and quiet from its corner of our noisy and busy household.

At some point, I became aware of some historical inaccuracies in that scene—when I learned enough about childbirth to question Mary’s slim waist and sweat-free brow, when I realized that the Holy Family with their Middle Eastern roots likely had skin tones a few shades darker than Norwegians.  But whenever the lectionary serves up this gospel lesson on the Sunday after Christmas, I am particularly aware of the acute dissonance between Hallmark’s version of the Christmas story and Matthew’s.

Matthew’s Christmas story makes for a pretty empty nativity scene.  There is no stable, no donkey, no shepherds in the fields, no choir of angels—Matthew leaves all of that to Luke.  At first there is only Mary and Joseph, and then the birth of Jesus happens in all of half of a verse.  There are wise men, eventually—they follow the star and come bearing gifts.  And, there is Herod.  King Herod who heard a rumor swirling around Bethlehem about a child born king of the Jews and felt his throne tremble beneath him.  Herod who was filled with fear and so lashed out with violence, ordering every child under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed.  And that is how there came to be one more character in Matthew’s nativity: Rachel.

Rachel of way back in Old Testament times…the wife of Jacob, mother of the twelve tribes of Israel and so, in some sense, mother of all of God’s people.  Back in the days of exile, the prophet Jeremiah watched God’s people be marched out of the Promised Land in shackles.  And when he reached for words to describe the profound sadness of the scene, he talked about a voice rising above the land of Ramah—a voice of lamentation and bitter weeping.  The voice was Rachel’s, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they were no more[1].

So when Matthew surveys the massacre of children in Bethlehem and reaches for words to describe the sadness, he once again summons Rachel to weep over her children who are no more.

Now, admittedly, Luke’s is the more pleasant nativity scene.  When I walk out of a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, I like it to be to the sound of angel choirs singing glorias, not to the noise of Rachel wailing.  I don’t want to pull back the Kleenex from my mother’s cardboard box and find King Herod scowling beneath its wrappings.  There is enough pain and suffering in the world that it seems not too much to ask for a few precious moments of sitting quietly with a sleeping newborn before opening the door to Rachel’s wails.

The problem is that if we push Rachel out of the nativity scene, we must also ask her fellow mourners to leave.  Politely excuse all those who wail for the children of Aleppo.  Usher out the parents of refugee babies who wash up on seashores.  Escort to the door all those who have wept over bodies left bullet-ridden and bleeding on battlefields and in city streets.  Wall off the parts of ourselves that cry for children who are no more.

As long as we keep our images of the nativity pristine and pious and plenty far away from any of Rachel’s kind, we make that night of Christ’s birth and the real world in which we reside irrelevant to one another.  Sometimes we do this out of sentimentality, determined to create for ourselves the kind of Christmas that will go unmarred by human pain.  And sometimes we act out of cynicism, certain that a long-ago story can offer no word of power to a thoroughly modern day.  This time each year as we store the trappings of Christmas away for another year, we must decide if we want to package up the nativity safely in bubble wrap, for fear that those porcelain figures won’t be fit for the journey yet ahead, or throw wide the doors to the stable, acknowledging that it has something to offer all who are weeping, wailing, and wounded.

Four years ago, in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed twenty elementary schoolchildren mere days before Christmas, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed[2] in which he introduced the character Ivan Karamazov into the nativity.  “Ivan [of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov] is the brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, and killed—babes caught on the points of soldier’s bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.”  In an argument with his brother, the believer, skeptical Ivan conjures up the images of these slaughtered innocents and dares his brother to make a case for a loving and omniscient God.  “Can you understand,” he pleas with his brother, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?”  Ivan concedes that there might yet be a future day in which every tear that child sheds is wiped away, but even then, he says, the cost is simply too high.  “’Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth the tears of that one tortured child.’”

That is Herod’s true threat, be it first-century Bethlehem or 19th-century Russia or 21st century Chapel Hill: not only that the powers of fear and violence will conquer innocent human life, but that we will resign ourselves to the suspicion that those powers are strong enough to overpower the powers of hope and love and redemption.

Dostoyevsky was himself a Christian.  Knowing that, we might expect that he would follow Ivan’s assault on the Almighty with an equally eloquent soliloquy, a stirring sermon, an A-plus apologetic of the truth and power of the God made flesh.  But Ivan’s compelling charge wins him no counter-argument for the existence and ultimate triumph of a good God.  There is no elegant proof offered in response; there is only, as Douthat points out, the rest of the story.   And the rest of the story includes the unfolding in other characters of a love so deep and so Christ-like that it transcends the surrounding suffering.  This–the story–is the answer offered to Ivan’s anthology of innocents.  And, in choosing this response, Dostoyevsky shows us how well he knew his Bible.  For in the pages of this sacred scripture, it is also “narrative rather than argument” that shows us God’s love; it is the story of God’s solidarity with every piece of our struggle, and not a “philosophical proof of divine benevolence” that reveals to us God’s goodness.

In the end, that story is all we have to offer Rachel and the other mothers who wail in the dark of Christmas night, all we can lift up against the power of the Herods who rule with violence and vengeance.  The story of God’s work in this world, which is not some highly sanitized bedtime story, but a gritty affair.

It begins with a God so willing to get hands dirty that God dug around in the earth’s soil to fashion human beings christened with the divine image.  It goes on to tell of the way that those humans almost immediately descended into a cycle of violence and despair, and how God’s solution was to draw closer still, binding God’s self to the people with the cord of covenant.  The story is full of wailing—the wailing of a people whose backs broke under the weight of slavery, the laments of those who wept by the waters of Babylon, the wailing of all creation as it groans for redemption.  But the story is also full of God’s presence—a pillar of fire, a still small voice, a hem of the robe filling the temple.  As time went on, God became less and less content to hover outside of the human world; God desired to draw closer still.

What happened next has lost a bit of its shock-value after so many years of telling it, but still it is announced to us as good news of great joy to all people.  The God of all creation decided to step out of the heavens, to take on the risk of birth by donning the frail flesh of an infant, and dwell among humanity.  And while this bold move did not stop the wailing—Herod saw to that immediately—it meant that God was with us in a way that God had never been before.  The Word made Flesh walked among us in all our messiness, in all our pain.  Jesus also proved inclined to get his hands dirty, washing the feet of fishermen and tending to the sores of lepers.  On the night that his frail flesh was pierced by nails, the world itself wailed, with great shuddering sobs that made the earth quake.  But three days later, that wailing turned to rejoicing when the body God took on proved stronger even than death.  And ever since then, the body of Christ has been making its way into the world, broken and vulnerable though it is, seeking to reflect in a mirror, dimly, just how deep and high and wide and broad is the love of God.

That’s the story that was set into motion that night in Bethlehem…and that continues even to this day.  The nativity scene is rooted not on a chest in my parents’ living room, but right in the midst of the chaos and violence and messiness of this world.   The stable gets a little more crowded, as shepherds scoot over to make room for the lepers and fishermen.  Mother Mary is joined by Mother Rachel, who brings along all the children of exile and the children of Bethlehem and the children of Aleppo.  And the three kings from the east see King Herod across the way, for there is no darkness the Christ child’s light does not pierce.  Porcelain faces of serenity soften into real human faces of awe and fear and heartbreak and joy.  War and famine and death rage all around, but there in the center sits the Christ child, flanked with squirrel and bluebird and lion and lamb.  Hope of the world.

[1] Jer. 31

[2] Ross Douthat, “The Loss of the Innocents,” NY Times, December 17, 2012.  All direct quotations that follow are Douthat’s words.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.