Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it to Egypt?
by Mike Stavlund
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:13-23
For Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010: Year A – First Sunday After Christmas
History, it is said, is written by the victors — a kind of collective memory of the successful, the dominant, the triumphant. It certainly seems so with this week’s text. How else could we read about the genocide of a whole generation of baby boys and conclude with some kind of happy ending?
The streets are splashed with blood and the wailing of mothers and fathers, yet our eyes avoid this to follow the silhouettes of Mary and Joseph as they wend their way through the desert to hide out with their firstborn son Jesus. We’re certainly happy for them, and glad that our savior is spared. But what about the scene back in Bethlehem? What about all of those baby boys?
Matthew looks back toward this carnage for only a minute– just long enough to make a connection to the prophecy of Jeremiah (and a self-congratulatory assertion that we are indeed on the winning team). We’re spared the awful reality of the horror visiting so many children and families up north.
Back to Egypt
It’s especially ironic that we read this text with such a triumphalist flair when Matthew seems intent on reminding us of the reversal in the text. In a flourish of redundant overstatement, he notes four times exactly where the First Family is headed: Egypt. Egypt. Egypt. Egypt.
Cue flashback scene to Exodus, chapters 1-12, where Pharaoh invokes the mass execution of all newborn Hebrew boys. A lone baby is spared while untold numbers are wrested from their families. Then just a few chapters later, the cast switches places when The Lord God takes up the killing, sparing only the sons of the Hebrews. And as if there’s not been quite enough blood, it’s smeared all over the doorways of the homes, where it presumably stains a reminder of this awful chapter of Hebrew and African history. So many children, so very dead. The joy of being spared this awful fate must have been subdued by the screams of bereaved families all across the land, all praying to a God who didn’t save their sons.
The Death of Innocence
When we’re being more honest about Matthew’s pericope, we call it “the slaughter of the innocents.” Indeed. Even our exalted Firstborn of all creation has some blood on his cape, and some carnage in his rear-view mirror. He escapes the suffering while others pay the ultimate price.
The hard realities of Bible stories sneak up on us, especially when we were raised with them. The story of Noah is not meant to make a cute border around a baby’s nursery, but is instead an awful tale of mass execution. Joseph doesn’t only wear a cool coat, he’s got some serious family issues. Samson’s not a strong man, but one plagued with debilitating weaknesses. Jonah’s not a fish-riding evangelist, but a bitter man who’d rather die than share some grace. And so on.
So what if in churches this Sunday, instead of only celebrating with Mary and Joseph and Jesus snug and safe in Egypt, we perhaps had a moment of silence for the other boys? A time of remembrance for the arms that held their lifeless forms, those arms that never forget what it is like to hold a beloved body, now void of life? And in so doing, we might make some space for the losses and setbacks that so many of us feel, which can be particularly painful during the holiday season.
The Hardest Question
What about those other boys, and their families? What happens when we stop to notice the losers? Who is God with when Immanuel hightails it to Egypt?
Mike Stavlund writes from a 5-car pile-up at the intersection of his Christian faith and real life. A husband of over 15 years and a father of 4 children, he lives with his wife and 3 daughters in a small house outside Washington, DC. He’s a part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table, a co-conspirator with the Relational Tithe, and a proud part of the collective called Emergent Village. He is the author of the manuscript “Force of Will”, and blogs at MikeStavlund.com.