December 29, 2019
First Sunday of Christmas, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
Merry 5th Day of Christmas! If you’re a normal person, you’re probably asking how this gospel reading[i] became a Christmas text. Granted, Jesus is still a baby, but really? On the 5th day of Christmas? Where are the 5 gold rings? Where are the turtle doves and French hens?
We don’t even read the Matthew text in order. We’ll hear that section that we skipped, about Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem next Sunday, when we celebrate Epiphany next Sunday. But today, we get to move right into the aftermath, when Herod realizes he’s been tricked, and responds with unthinkable violence. It doesn’t take us long to move from the good news of the arrival of God in human form, to hear stories of violence, terror, and despair.
And then this odd reference to Matriarch Rachel, lamenting in Ramah, refusing to be consoled. What’s that about? Could this be a holiday story we neglect in our carols and Christmas cards?
Rachel[ii], if you remember your Hebrew bible stories, is the second wife of Jacob, the fourth mother of his children. Rachel suffers under the power of a rich, authoritarian system. She lives in a culture that recognizes women only for their ability to give birth to sons, and gives them little to no influence in their circumstances.
Rachel and Jacob meet at a well, as she fetches water for her father’s flock, and he falls in love with her. Her father Laban, himself a rich, dominant man, forces Jacob to work for seven years to gain his daughter’s hand. But Laban tricks the couple on their wedding night disguising Rachel’s older sister Leah with the wedding veil. Jacob is allowed to finally marry Rachel, but only upon the condition of working another seven years in his father-in-law’s fields.
Although Jacob prefers Rachel, she has trouble conceiving, which even today is heartbreaking, but in that culture, greatly disadvantages a woman. Her sister Leah, on the other hand, gets pregnant easily, quickly giving birth to the first four sons of Jacob and later two more. Rachel becomes resentful and jealous, and the sisters become bitter rivals.
Jacob grows weary of Rachel’s longing for him, but she is desperate to give birth, so she sends her servant to him to bear a surrogate child in her name. Leah counters by sending her own servant, for the same purpose. Between the two servants and his first wife, Jacob ends up with ten sons, and at least one daughter before Rachel finally gives birth to Joseph. You probably remember how the older brothers feel about the younger favored child.
After many years of caring for his father-in-law’s flocks, Jacob decides to move away from his land, taking all his wives, concubines, servants, children and herds with him. Out in the country between Bethel and Ephrath, Rachel gives birth to a second child but dies in childbirth. She is buried outside of Ramah, a little town near Bethlehem of Ephratha. (See, I told you this was a Christmas story!)
Centuries later, when the descendants of those 12 sons of Jacob are forced into exile by violence and conquest, they cross through the land where Rachel is buried. The prophet Jeremiah imagines the voice of long-dead Rachel crying out as she sees Jacob’s children’s children being marched into captivity, refusing to be consoled as she realizes how many have died and will die before they return to their home[iii].
This is the backdrop for the Christmas story. Jesus is born into a world in which the power of the despot, the rich, and the authoritarian continues to devastate the hopes and dreams of the ones crying from the sidelines. The weeping of bereft mothers and matriarchs has not yet been silenced.
Has Christmas ever been celebrated without pain? It hasn’t been this year. I know many of you have had rough weeks dealing with the flu or with that cough that kept many of you away for weeks. Yesterday’s weather did not help gladden the hearts of travelers.
My holiday season, like many of yours, has included visits to hospital rooms, an overnight in the Youth Center while serving with Project Home, acknowledging hurtful comments and slip-ups, troubled conversations with friends whose marriages have ended this year, grief over those who have died since last Christmas, prayers with those who could no longer pray, carols in care facilities with those whose memories of Christmas have blurred and faded, and gatherings with those who were worried sick over the welfare of a young person who felt life had no meaning or purpose. The voices of mothers crying out for their children caught in addiction or in complications from mental and physical illnesses, dealing with the risks of gun violence or abusive circumstances continue to echo through our holiday.
And as hard as many of our celebrations have been, we know the situation is even worse for so many others. All across the world, families confront hunger, oppression, and war, causing them to flee their homelands and seek shelter elsewhere. The flight into exile of the Holy Family in that first century foreshadows the stories of now over 250 million internationally displaced persons. The World Health Organization estimates there are at least one billion migrants in the world[iv].
250 neighbors from Minneapolis lost their temporary homes when fire destroyed the Drake Hotel on Christmas morning. Over 1000 homes have been destroyed in Australian wildfires. Nearly one third of Syria’s population is now classified as displaced. And across the United States, migrant families are still separated from each other, housed in prison-like conditions, or sent back into the violent, terrorizing conditions from which they’ve fled[v].
Can Christmas honestly be celebrated without recognizing the plight of so many across the globe? Rachel is still crying out from the margins, with all of those forgotten, abused, and forsaken ones.
King Herod was not the first tyrant to order the brutal slaying of innocents. Historians aren’t even able to verify that there was a mass execution at the time, but his story rings true. Years before in Egypt, the ancient Pharaoh had attempted to wipe out Jacob’s descendants by killing all the male babies as they were born. Execution of the children of marginalized communities seems to be a favorite tool of paranoid, violent despots. Somehow they believe that they need to rid themselves of any potential future threat, by killing off a generation of prospective opponents.
But the Holy Family knows something the despots have forgotten. God hears the cries of the vulnerable. Rachel’s grief is not in vain. God has always appeared, not in the palace of the comfortable or the arrogant, but off on the margins, among the displaced, within the hearts of the heart-broken, between the notes of the minor-keyed carols.
Matthew links the Christmas story to this sad note in Jeremiah’s song, of Rachel weeping for her children, because he hopes his listeners know the rest of Jeremiah 31[vi]. The prophet sings of the coming restoration of God’s people. God responds to Rachel’s song with words of hope and comfort. “Keep your voice from weeping,” God tells her through the prophet, in the very next verse. “Keep your eyes from tears; for there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country[vii].”
God recognizes the pain for parents whose children have died. Their grief is ongoing and real, and God doesn’t forget it. The Christmas story is a reminder that God is born into precarious, violent times, and the cries of those who suffer from the violence will not be silenced.
But the birth of Jesus is not just good news for one lucky family who escapes the violence. Do you remember what Mary’s husband Joseph hears in his dream? You shall name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins[viii].
This is our Christmas hope! Jesus has been born to save us from the destruction we keep inflicting upon each other. Jesus has been born to offer us a way of compassion and forgiveness, hope and reconciliation. Jesus has been born to show the world that tyrants and dictators, oppressors and, dare I say, even presidents, don’t ever get to define our response to those who are weeping or grieving.
God has been born in our midst. God has offered us a saving way out of our pain, by teaching us to sing a new song. God is claiming a place in our world that violence or oppression or domination can’t touch, and urging us to turn it around.
In her 2015 book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas compares Rachel’s weeping to the grief of African-American mothers who witness violence against their children today. Douglas writes: One thing is made clear as Rachel’s weeping is juxtaposed with the birth of Jesus: there is no power that can stand its ground against God, not even the power of death.[ix]
No Pharaoh, nor Herod, no authoritarian devious father, no patriarchal system, no totalitarian regime or racist worldview will get the last word for Rachel, or for any who share her grief. God will hear her cries. God will console her. God will write her a new song[x]. God will right the wrong she has faced.
By the end of Jeremiah’s chapter, God promises us a new covenant, one which will be written on our hearts. The covenant is this: I will be your God, and you shall be my people, and you shall not have to teach each other about me, for you shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. And I will forgive your iniquity, and remember your sin no more[xi].
Kelly Brown Douglas goes on: God does not [overlook the grief of those whose children have died or suffered]. For it is in the midst of this great suffering and grief that God comes. It is through a mother’s weeping that we can see the measure of the hope in the world that is God’s. It is in knowing the deep grief of a mother for her children that we can understand the extent of hope for the justice of God[xii].
The Christmas story reminds us that Christ is not only found wrapped in swaddling clothes, but will end up a crucified and resurrected savior. Death, hatred, violence, and despair will not get the last word. In fact, the Christmas story reminds us that God is not only present in one Holy Family fleeing violence, but in every migrant family seeking shelter and a better future. God’s love is revealed not only in the life and death of one executed rabbi, but in the death of every innocent victim in the world.
By the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Savior will teach us to look for God’s presence in the bodies of those who are hungry and thirsty, in the faces of strangers, and in the lives of those who are imprisoned or homeless[xiii].
God has always been being born among us, coming to teach us to love one another. God comes to teach us to care for the migrant family, to weep with the grieving, to flee from oppression or despair, to strive for justice. God comes to show us a new, life-giving way, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
God is still being born to heal our broken-hearts, to comfort our pain and sorrow, to save us from our sin, and to make us whole again.
Rachel’s cries are heard even today among the immigrant and the grieving, the hungry and the displaced, the sorrowful and the victimized. But her cries are not in vain. Immanuel, God-with-us, is born again in her midst, and calls out for us to join the work of justice, reconciliation and home-coming[xiv].
Isn’t this what Christmas has been about all along?
[i] Matthew 2:13-23.
[ii] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Freso_-_Rachel_is_weeping_for_her_children.jpg Macedonian Encyclopedia, MANU, 2009, p. [Public domain]
[iii] Jeremiah 31:15.
[vi] See Amy Jill-Levine, Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent, Abingdon Press, 2019, p. 135-139.
[vii] Jeremiah 31:16-17.
[viii] Matthew 1:21.
[ix] Douglas, quoted in http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/xmas1a/
[x] Here’s another link to the Christmas story: Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, was said to be born in Ramah, near the place where Rachel cried from her grave. Hannah also despaired of never having children, and cried out to God in her advancing age to help her conceive. When she finally learned she would have a child, she sang a song that sounds very much like the song Mary would one day sing when sharing news of her pregnancy with Elizabeth. See 1 Samuel 1:2-2:11 and Luke 1:26-56.
[xi] Jeremiah 31:33-34.
[xii] Douglas, op.cit. http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/xmas1a/
[xiii] Matthew 25.
[xiv] Thanks also to Heidi Neumark for posting this inspiring quote from Joy Carolle Wallis: December 28th The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. “We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let’s not forget to put Herod back into Christmas. Herod …reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That’s how the church is described in scripture time and time again – not as the best and the brightest – but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.” Joy Carolle Wallis