Here we are on the threshold of a new year. Today we can look both backward and forward. We can ponder what has been and contemplate what is to come. And perhaps today’s story can serve as a sort of portal as we reflect. So here is a bit of context to guide us.
Next week, we will celebrate the festival of Epiphany. We will return then to the account of the wise ones’ visit to the holy family. For today, we find ourselves confronting the shadow side of the nativity story—King Herod’s reaction to the wondrous birth. Herod was a competent ruler, a builder of roads, ports, and aqueducts. He restored and enhanced the temple in Jerusalem. Some even saw him as a savior figure. And yet Herod was also paranoid about losing his grip on power. We know he murdered members of his own family to maintain control. And according to this story he was also willing to slaughter scores of innocent children to vanquish another perceived threat to his throne.
Because Matthew was a Jewish author seeking to engage a Jewish audience, the story of the holy family as refugees on the run echoes the narrative of ancient Israel at every turn. Joseph, the father of Jesus, resembles the ancient patriarch, Joseph, who sought refuge in Egypt in a time of famine. Both Josephs were dreamers in tune with the Spirit, whose visions guided their families through seasons of grave danger. As Joseph’s people began to thrive in Egypt, Pharoah felt threatened. He enslaved the Hebrews, and eventually ordered the murder of their baby boys. So Jesus becomes a new Moses, whom the midwives kept safe during Pharoah’s genocide, hiding him in a basket in the reeds of the Nile. The stories of infants Moses and Jesus show us God’s face in innocence and vulnerability, and they reveal the protective power of fierce, courageous resistance to evil.
Herod’s slaughter of children also hearkens back to another event in Israel’s history. Matthew remembers the weeping of mothers when their little ones were murdered by the invading Assyrian army. So the ruthlessness and inhumanity of the powerful and the grief and resistance of those who suffer at their hands are threads that connect the stories of many generations. And finally, we come to the reference to Nazareth, the obscure village where the holy family found safety. Nazareth shares a root in Hebrew with the word Neser, or branch. (Remember that prophecy about the righteous branch that would sprout from the dead stump of Jesse?) So it seems that Nazareth symbolizes the promise of fresh possibilities and new beginnings—even amid generational patterns of violence and oppression.
What reflection does this story prompt for you as we stand on the threshold of this new year? As you look back into the year that is past, what patterns do you notice? What have you been grieving? How have you resisted or collaborated with evil? And as you look ahead, where do you see the promise of God-with-us, the hope of a new branch emerging, the gift of a fresh possibility?
Friends, you probably need more time, much more time, with questions like these. Please take them home and sit with them over these next few days. May God bless our reflection and our living as we cross this threshold and enter a new year. Amen.