This piece was first given as a sermon, January 3, 2021, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. A link to the video recording of the morning service is below. The lectionary readings were: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23.
Happy New Year. . . I think. I am having a difficult time with that greeting, to be honest. Is it happy? Is it new? Yes, we have turned another calendar year. 2020 has passed (but its legacy lives on). The trauma that was unleashed during the past year will remain with us for quite some time. Mask wearing will be required for the foreseeable future. Certain reactions when it comes to navigating public spaces, like muscle memory, will likely stay with us. It will be some time before I can comfortably make my parents a meal, before my friends can introduce their growing babies in person to grandparents whom they only know through a screen. How will young children respond to hugs or human contact, I wonder?
As we imagine the year to come, let me say that the rollout of vaccines is a scientific wonder to be praised, and offers a light in the distance during this deep COVID winter. I do not wish to discount that as I know many are taking solace at the thought of returning to (what should be) normal activities. From a posture of gratitude, I would like to take a moment this morning to consider this notion of returning, and to suggest that as we emerge from the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, we might find ourselves returning to a -new- place, one that is familiar while being a very different—and very changed—landscape.
This morning’s gospel story, from Matthew 2, of Joseph taking Jesus and Mary to Egypt after having been warned in a dream of Herod’s treacherous machinations is at heart a refugee story. The image of a couple with their infant child seeking a home where violence is not a first and formative experience, holds deep resonance with us today. We have heard the stories of harrowing journeys in less than seaworthy boats, and of families locked away or separated with little food or care given to them. In light of Matthew 2, these stories should haunt us. And, frankly, if you suddenly feel the fire of compassion and a desire for advocacy at the thought of the Holy family fleeing as refugees, I encourage you to look up organizations like World Relief, or Raices, or find out how to volunteer with Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network.
Today I would like to sit with another kind of haunting that the text itself alludes to. Verses 16 to 18 (the verses the lectionary reading skipped over), say this:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under (according to the time that he had learned from the wise men). Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”
Two prophecies punctuate the text: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” and, “wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children” — promised hope, and unfathomable lament. We could be forgiven for focusing on the fortunes of the holy family, aiming a spotlight on the hope that is Jesus—a new Joshua returning (the people) to a promised land (Israel). However, this year, this morning, I sense that we need to be open to lament, and venture into the shadows together.
Had Jesus returned to Bethlehem, would he have felt alone? Would the townspeople remember Mary and Joseph, and would they have been blamed for drawing down the ire of Herod? As I read over these texts, I couldn’t stop thinking about how a returning may have unfolded had they gone back to Bethlehem—both a place of wonder (all the things Mary pondered in her heart), and a place of such deep trauma. (Assuming that families were slightly less transient and mobile than they are today) How noticeable would Jesus have been as virtually the only child of his age? No doubt other mothers in the area would not have forgotten the day of violence when beloved infants and clutching babies were taken from their arms. No doubt Mary would feel their loss as a nightmare. And everywhere, the lack of young children of a certain age, like ghosts hovering in corners just out of sight from doorways.
What might it be like to return to such devastation? By devastation, I mean the invisible wounds of grieving the disappeared. Such grief is not obvious. Arguably, within a few years daily life would seem ‘back to normal.’ Livelihoods remain unchanged. Older siblings would eventually be joined by younger. What has changed in the landscape is virtually unnoticeable; to see it requires the eyes, the heart and the stomach to lift up a veneer of ‘normal’ daily life in order to perceive missing elements.
For the holy family, returning to their homeland after the death of their persecutor, after the dust had settled, must have been a strange kind of homecoming. If, as the gospel writer of Luke suggests, their journey to Nazareth was a return to (Joseph’s) family, the transition back to familiar faces and terrain may have eased some of the emotional toll of their exodus in miniature. Yet for Jesus, and any siblings that had joined the the family along the way, everything would be new. That they chose to return to Nazareth, in Galilee, which was considered to be a cultural backwater—was that an obvious choice, or was it agreed upon that Bethlehem simply would not be safe given that Herod’s son ruled? Did they feel pressure to do everything within their power not to draw attention to themselves? Did they feel a kind of survivors’ guilt?
I sit with this story this morning because we are approaching a time when together we will return to a changed landscape. As with Matthew’s story, the changes could be overlooked. Whether we recognize it or not, we too will be carrying trauma (how much compared to others doesn’t need to be decided). Perhaps like Mary we are to ponder in our hearts revelations and the little epiphanies that visit us during this time. Perhaps we need to be haunted by the many Rachel’s weeping for her children. Perhaps we will find ways to honor the many elders lost too soon. I encourage you to consider while the year is still new, how will you posture yourself for the return journey? How has the landscape changed outside your door, or in another neighborhood? It is my hope that by letting this terrible text of Matthew 2 flicker across our imagination, that seeds of promise may be sown—seeds that will bear rich and nourishing fruit for ourselves and for others.
This morning is about returning, which points us toward the promise of gathering once again. As we heard the prophet Jeremiah proclaim,
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here. (31:8)
This is the great promise of Israel’s return from exile, to Yahweh (Adonai), to Zion, the mountain of the Lord. And listen to who it is God is gathering: among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor. In other words, the most vulnerable are explicitly named as belonging to the returning crowd. Rachel’s weeping is consoled. Jacob is redeemed. This vision is far from a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ and it is God’s vision.
Returning is redemption; particularly when we allow the eyes of our heart to see the contours of change upon a (ghost-laden) landscape. During this season of pandemic, our systemic weaknesses have been exposed. The fissures and cracks in the socioeconomic have expanded, leaving some communities absolutely decimated—they are our Bethlehems—while others remain relatively unharmed. A great many have died too soon. How we return will demonstrate to our neighbors and to future generations the nature of our character.
How are we to return to a new place? Let’s look again at the Psalm from this morning, Psalm 84.
Happy are those whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, [another version says, “as they go through the valley of Baca (weeping) they make it a place of springs] for the early rains cover it with pools of water. They will go from strength to strength, and the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Ps 84:4-6)
We are in a valley of weeping.
And yet—did you hear? Not only are humans blessed, but there is a home, a place of safety, for sparrows and swallows at the altars of God. This psalm speaks of journeying to God and finding life, shelter, eternal sustenance in God’s presence. It offers us a vision of pilgrimage that we will need in the coming months and years as we begin to return to a new place. Beloved, we do not make this journey alone. Emmanuel, God with us is indeed with us and among us, drawing us to Godself and keeping us in communion with one another until we may safely gather once again. For now, as we journey through this desolate valley I pray that we will seek to encounter—and to make—life giving springs, not just for ourselves, but for all.