In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.
It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).
There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.
By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.
In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!
There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.
And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod 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” (Matt 2:16).
It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.
The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.
Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.
That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.
This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?
I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?
It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.
As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?
As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.
On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/
For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/
For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html
For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/