Audio File of Sermon, 28 Dec. 2014 (click the arrow to hear)
The Bible is a people’s history; but we rarely think of it that way. No wonder we have domesticated the Christmas story by turning it into a festival of gift-giving and consumption, with Santa Claus as its symbol. So the story of the slaying of the infants that we read in today’s Liturgy comes as a shock. Such a violent part of the Christmas story just doesn’t fit the jolly mood of the season. We know that there are people who get depressed at Christmas, but that’s a problem for the psychiatrists, right? This, this is different!
Orthodox iconography is very rich with depictions of this mass killing at the dawn of our salvation. These icons, several of which are shown in this post, give us a different, more sober perspective on the Christmas story. Many of the icons show the infants in the white garments of martyrs. But no matter how much we soften the blow of the story with visions of heaven, the darkness of the story remains. How dare Matthew spoil our good cheer by describing such a horrible incident?! And yet here it is, as a reminder that Christmas is not about Santa Claus, it’s about God entering into a world burdened with great suffering and evil.
And so Matthew begins his narrative with the genealogy, to show that Jesus came in the midst of human history, after 42 generations of people who knew their God and their need of God – even if they often failed to live up to God’s commands. Luke begins his narrative by positioning Christ’s birth within Roman history, the reign of Augustus and the census undertaken by Quirinius. And then when you look at the birth itself, note the cast of characters present: angels (the divine realm), Mary, Joseph & shepherds (the Jewish realm), magi (the Gentile realm), Herod (the Roman realm).
They all were brought together by that birth. Their motives were not the same. Yet, they were all in need of the liberation that the Christ child brought. Because that’s what Christmas is all about: liberation.
Christmas has been trivialized by the society into a holiday of gifts and parties. On the other hand, there are the rationalists and naysayers who tell us it’s just a myth. Holiday? Myth? How about Christmas as a story of liberation?
It seems the only people who can recognize the liberating message at the heart of Christmas are people living under oppressive regimes or dictatorships, or people living in economic poverty. We don’t have that privilege. Most of us are not poor by the standards of world poverty. And we’re not living in a dictatorship. We are free, so free that we can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on gifts.
And yet, and yet, ARE we free? Is there a voice inside each of us that tells were not as free as we think? We do need to hear the story of the slaughtered infants to remind us that there are powers that seek to destroy what is good in our lives. Perhaps we are not so far apart from the poor and the oppressed of the third-world. Perhaps the Christ-child can help us see that we are all brothers and sisters, all part of that people’s history that he embraced by his birth. He embraces us also, and goes deep into our own wounds and touches them with his healing grace. We need the liberating message of Christmas as much as the poor and oppressed of the world. We need to hear the story of the slaughtered infants. It’s our story too. Daily, the innocence of children is slaughtered, even in our western societies. Daily, there is weeping and wailing, just as in the Gospel story. Christmas is a daily miracle, a daily event in our lives. Yes, because evil also is a daily event, and liberation is a daily need.
Christmas, dear friends, Christmas is the highest message of Christianity. I know we say Easter is the key to our salvation. I might disagree – at least today, or until my next Easter sermon.