In the Lectionary

Sunday, December 26, 2010: Matthew 2:13-23

Today is December 26. It is still Christmas and it will be until January 6. My mother did not think so. On the evening of December 25 she tossed the tree, put away the decorations, fed the family the leftovers and announced it was 365 days until Christmas. For her the Depression stole Christmas, widening the gulf between those who have and those who do not.

Today is Christmas, and so is tomorrow and tomorrow for 12 days. We need every day of it to reflect on what God has done among us. "Emmanuel," says Matthew. "God is with us." Judging by the careful attention he gives to it, Matthew must have loved this season. Our text is but a slice of the story, but 2:13–23 is pregnant with remembrances of Israel's past: the saga of Joseph the dreamer in Egypt, the violent pharaoh, the rescue of the infant Moses, the lament of mother Rachel, the exodus from Egypt and the arrival of the holy family in the promised land. The narrative is carefully framed in three sections, each concluding with a quotation of scripture (verses 15, 17–18, 23), but the passage is doubly enriched by allusions to and echoes of Israel's history and hope. A refrain, "the child and his mother" (repeated four times after verse 11),  holds the narrative together, makes it easy to remember and repeat, and moves the reader with the image of faithful Joseph keeping the family safe by his obedience to the will of God. Almost incidentally, Matthew is able to answer the persistent question: how could one born in Bethlehem of Judea become Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee?

The entirety of Matthew 2:13–23 is set in motion by the event of 2:1–12, the coming of wise men from the east to Jerusalem. This event is told in the manner of an antiestablishment story, a peasant-versus-king story, a story protesting abuses by the powerful against the powerless. These stories can be found in every culture. Early American colonists, smarting under the heel of King George III, delighted in reciting, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again." One can imagine camel drivers around an evening fire enjoying their hatred of Herod.