Friday, December 27, 2013

Light and Shadow (Matthew 2:16-18)

Herod became furious when he realized that the astrologers (wise men) had outwitted him. He gave orders to kill all male children that were two years old and younger living in and around Bethlehem. The age of the children was based on the date Herod had learned from the astrologers. Then what was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
           "A voice was heard in Ramah
                 sobbing and lamenting loudly;
           it was Rachel weeping for her children
                she refused to be consoled,
               for they were no more."

This is a singularly horrible story. It intrudes like a troublesome drunken uncle on our holiday celebrations. A jolting reminder that in the midst of Christmas light and life we can still find human fear and violence. Matthew seems to be telling us that the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows which accompany it. Andy Woffe has commented, "If we are resolved to know the full story of Christmas, the glory and the horror, we must hear Rachel and the women of Bethlehem … weeping for the children." 

At the Christmas eve service of my home church - I work in a regional office - the Rev. Steven Mitchell spoke about the hope of a new world of which the birth of Jesus is a sign. New worlds never simply pop into existence. They are formed out of the glory and ruin of old worlds. The Massacre of the Innocents, as this narrative is called, starkly points to old realities seeking to subvert the emerging new.

I think the same dynamics are at play in the life of gender and sexually diverse people. The closeup of the Poussin's painting highlighting the heel on the neck of the innocent is often an emotional reality as queer people discern our inner compass. The discernment is light to us, yet, with this light comes the potential of shadows from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and church. For some the shadows are only mist, for others the shadows are more solid - heels on necks and Rachel weeping.

On many levels the passage places us on notice that emerging realities come at a price. There is an echo of the scheme by an ancient Pharaoh to murder all the male Israelite children even as Moses is born. Rachel's tears bring before us the picture of Jerusalem laying ruined and empty as Israelite families are taken off in chains to serve in Babylon. Now, Bethlehem becomes the target of a paranoid king clasping power as tightly as possible.

It is an odd picture in which we see Jesus being spirited away to Egypt to escape old understandings and patterns of thinking. It denotes the fragility with which new understandings and ways of thinking come to birth. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents points to the vulnerability of the new as it seeks to gain adherence, the fear and violence of the old as it is displaced, and the shadows that must be transversed by those seeking the light.

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