Blessed 5th Day of Christmas. But rather than five golden rings, God’s true love in the Holy Family of Jesus is under threat of death fleeing home and country for their lives, and other children are murdered by a fearful and enraged Herod, and the threat continues even to the next generation. It’s a very different song, the festival of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, but one that is part of the 12 days of Christmas.
The cover on the Christmas Eve bulletin that Pastor Lyndon referred to that night depicted this scene. The image by Kelly Latimore, titled “La Sagrada Familia” pictures what could be a contemporary Latino couple in t-shirts and jeans and a baseball cap, carrying a backpack and bags and their child, walking by the light of the moon with fearful faces, suggesting they are fleeing, seeking safety and asylum elsewhere, each of them surrounded by a halo, the child’s with the traditional depictions of alpha and omega for Jesus the Christ child. It’s a modern icon that draws us into the lived experience of a displaced “Holy” family, fleeing for their safety while other children die because of the murderous actions of tyrants in our own time. How do we sing the “Glorias” of Christmas with this scene, then and now, before us?
In the weekly lectionary Bible study where we look at the upcoming Sunday’s readings, we talked before Christmas about entering this year of the Gospel Matthew, one of two Gospels that provides any details about the birth of Jesus. And that it is the Gospel of Matthew that seems to “fill in” other parts of the birth and early story of the Holy family not included in the more familiar Gospel of Luke. Depending on how we understand the sources and dating of the two Gospels, Matthew “adds” the stories of Joseph’s own dreams and visitation by angels telling him about this child of Mary’s, about remaining with her, and about the visit of the three Magi from foreign lands who see the star and seek the child born to be a King, to bring gifts to honour him – the traditional story of the Epiphany, that was the first Christmas story celebrated by the church in the early centuries – and in today’s reading, about Joseph’s being told in a dream to flee Israel, first to Egypt and then to Nazareth for the safety of the child and their family. These stories add this other experience, particularly of Joseph, but also of the tragedy and death surrounding the birth of Jesus, and a young refugee family on the run for the safety of their child in the face of political fears and murderous forces that are seeking to take Jesus’ young life and willing to kill other children in the process. As much as it may feel like this story is not what we want to hear, and it takes away from our Christmas days’ celebrations, it is like the Gospel of Matthew insists we need to hear and remember this side of the Christmas story as well.
It was two years ago that part of Christmas news in Victoria was that two little girls had been found murdered in their father’s Oak Bay condominium on Christmas Day. The deaths of Chloe and Aubrey Berry, ages 6 and 4 years old, was a horrible, horrible tragedy for these children, their mother and family, the whole city, and the Anglican Cathedral school and church community where the girls attended. Now two years later, their father, Andrew Berry, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. A few weeks ago, as part of the sentencing process, victim impact statements were given or submitted before the judge, and the Victoria paper published the statement by the girl’s mother, Sarah Cotton. As I read today’s words from Matthew’s gospel, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachael weeping for her children; refusing to be consoled, because they are no more,” I thought of the girl’s mother, and her statement. Refusing to be consoled in the senseless death of her daughters that were, in her words, “her whole life.” God be with her and all of the family in the continuing struggle to live on, beyond these terrible deaths.
And this is the experience of Christmas added by the Gospel of Mathew, that in the midst of Jesus’ birth, the Saviour, Emmanuel, which means, “God with us,” tragedy and death, violence and murder, are part of the in-the-flesh world that God has chosen to be born into, in an infant, vulnerable and dependent on the care of a father and mother who must flee and seek a life outside of their own country and community to keep their child and themselves safe. It is this world, in all its brokenness that Jesus, Emmanuel. God with us, is born in the flesh to save this world from its sins, as the angel told Joseph.
There was another impact statement and image published in the paper below the girl’s mother’s, from one of their young friends. The name is withheld because of their age. The image is of two houses, one on the left side of the page is rainbow coloured, with a pink roof, and clouds below it. There is a large window in this house and there are two figures in the window, one in blue and one in pink, both with yellow hair, one looks like their wearing a hat or something in their hair on the top of their head. There seems to be smiles on both faces. There is a single black line that divides the page from the bottom, almost to the top. On the right side is another house, brown with some yellow, a brown roof with a single squiggly line in green below, looking like grass. There is a small window in this house, with a face in the window in green and blue, with a down turned mouth in black or brown. Above this house are two birds, both pink and blue, one more pink, flying above and in the direction of the brown house from the rainbow house.
This description accompanied the picture:
“On the right there is a house. There is a window in the house and a boy in the window crying. … [T]he picture is of him in his room with the door closed, by himself, crying, feeling sad. On the left is a picture of the girls in the sky (above us somewhere). They are in a rainbow house because … the girls would like to live in a house like that.
“In between the two pictures is a line that separates the two worlds, near the top of the picture there is a gap in the line, two birds are flying through the gap. … [T]his is how he visits with the girls now, he thinks that when Ravens and Eagles visit him that it is Chloe and Aubrey visiting him, this is how he believes they visit him now. He is glad they visit him, but wishes he could see them as girls again.” (Times Colonist, 2019)
From a child we see clearly, the loss and sadness and tears of a friend missing his two friends, living on in this world separated from the other; But so also hope: seeing his two little friends happy to be living in a rainbow house they would like, and flying between the two worlds as Ravens or Eagles to visit him. Both parts of this God’s world, of the birth of Jesus, of God with us in this life, to save us and this world: loss and death and lamentation, hope and life and salvation, in the one born to be God with us in and through it all.
The truth of the fleeing Holy Refugee Family, and death of Holy Innocent children and the wailing and lamentation of their mothers that Matthew’s Gospel tells, and the Gospel promise in the birth of Jesus/God with us and all creation to save us from sin and death; are also a reminder, challenge and call that we make the wellbeing of all children our deep concern. That we work with others in our community, province, nation and world to advocate for and see realized the safety and wellbeing and thriving of refugee children, indigenous children, children living in poverty in Canada and everywhere, disadvantaged children because of ability or minority race, religion or culture, children threatened by domestic violence, by war and famine, all children, all God’s children and their families, that they are safe and warm and fed and clothed and cared for and playing, laughing, thriving, as God with us, as God as a vulnerable in the flesh child with us intends and desires, then and now and always. God, by your grace, and in the freedom and commitment it opens to us, let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.