Christmas 1(A): One Long Nightmare
By: The Rev. Steve Pankey
When is a door not a door?
When it’s ajar.
When is the Revised Common Lectionary not common?
When it’s Christmas.
The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.
If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.
We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”
God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.