The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 5, 2020
Luke 2.13-15, 19-23
Ephesians 1.3-6, 15-19a
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The episode of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and return is the third and final act of Matthew’s infancy drama. Act 1: the angel’s announcement about Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph. Act 2 the visit and departure of the Magi. Our lesson today is Act 3, three brief scenes, depicting the chaotic aftermath of the Magi’s visit. Each scene is concluded by a quotation of Scripture. First, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to flee to Egypt to keep Jesus safe from Herod. The second, actually omitted in our lesson, but I’m suturing it back into place, is an Alfred Hitchcock cutaway shot, shifting abruptly to Herod, his rage over the Magi’s trickery, and the slaughter of the innocents. Finally, the third scene resumes the theme of Joseph and his dreams. The first dream informing him of Herod’s death and instructing him to return to Israel, the second one, an emergency course adjustment, redirects Joseph and family to Galilee and Nazareth, because of the danger posed by Herod’s successor, Archelaus.
The quotation technique employed by Matthew’s to conclude each scene is how he plays the prophetic game of “connect the dots.” He was influenced by Jewish methods of reading the Scriptures, methods still employed by rabbinic scholars today. Their foundation is the conviction that Scripture speaks beyond itself, whispers to itself, and continues to speak after the prophetic message has been delivered, recorded, and edited over the centuries, because God’s words have a life of their own. Character patterns that recur, events that seem to happen over and over, language used in one place that shows up in others—such things allow the beads of the Scriptures to be strung and restrung into fresh and amazing patterns, and allowed entire Jewish communities, such as produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, to read themselves into the biblical story. For Matthew, it was natural for the stories of Jesus to resonate with the older Jewish Scriptures, and his task was to read Jesus out of and into the Law and the Prophets.
How do these formula-quotations work? They are not proof-texts that suggest these precise bits of Jesus’ history had been foreseen in the prophetic crystal ball. When, to interpret the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, Matthew chose to cite Hosea 11.1, “out of Egypt have I called my son,” he was perfectly aware that the prophet was looking back to one of Israel’s “nation-creating” events, the Exodus from Egypt, and not forward to a “son of god” (or a Messiah) somewhere in the future. According to Matthew’s writerly agenda, in the person and vocation of Jesus, Israel’s story would reach completion. By way of “the son” of Hosea 11.1, Matthew reaches all the way back to the Israel of Exodus in order to suggest that Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, the son of God, is the perfect and true embodiment of Israel, while also glancing at the true identity of the churches for which this gospel was written.
The second quotation concludes the brief Herod-episode omitted from our lesson. [Herod, in a rage, paranoid that this king of the Jews born in Bethlehem bodes ill for the Herodian line, orders the murder of all male babies in that town two years old and younger.] The concluding quotation is meant to exploit the resonances in Scripture produced by this atrocity. As Matthew interprets:
‘Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.’”
This sounds like the terrible undoing of the great promises of a people and a nation to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But before the quotation is reached, we are already set to remembering Joseph, the dreamer of dreams, and the time of Moses’ birth, when Pharaoh issued the order to kill every male Hebrew child. In fact, according to Jewish tradition which Matthew would have known, Pharaoh did so because he had learned of the birth of a future liberator of Israel. But the explicit quotation that closes the scene of the atrocity is from Jer 31.15. That whole passage is better known because in it God promises to renew the covenant with Israel, at last, by bringing her back from exile. Rachel, Israel’s mother, weeps and mourns, refuses bitterly to be consoled, but Jeremiah insists that God’s salvation is imminent. As Matthew connects the dots, he suggests Jesus is that imminent deliverer and restorer of the covenant for a people whose identity is linked to Israel’s in exile, suffering and in danger, still caught in the grips of spiritual exile in her own land.
More allusive—but then that’s half the fun—is the quotation that concludes the last scene of return to Israel, and the redirection to Galilee: “And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” Reference to “prophets” in the plural in not an indication that more than one made the statement. It implies instead that several ancient prophetic comments are at work in Matthew’s interpretation, each allowing wordplay with term “Nazarene,” because they employ similar sounding Hebrew words. The main one comes in the use of the Hebrew term “nezer,” meaning “branch,” that occurs in Isaiah 11.1, a messianic text: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” This is pure creative play on the part of Matthew. His term, translated “Nazarene,” derives from the name of the town, Nazareth. To this point in the gospel story, our author has already gone to Isa 7.14 to interpret the virginal birth. So, with questions about Kingship in the air (Herod’s and Jesus’), it is natural for Matthew to turn to Isa 11.1, with its promise of a new beginning for the royal house of David, and forge a link with the infancy story of Jesus. This time when the dots are connected, Jesus, now of Nazareth, foreshadows the Messiah and Son of David. Out of the chaos, dangers, and movements of this last Act of the Infancy story, God has fashioned the deliverance and deliverer: the one true Israelite, restorer of the covenant for a people in deep danger, the branch that has come forth out of the root of Jesse. And the open (unasked) question to the reader is, “and where are you in this unfolding drama?”
The dangers and tension of this part of the Infancy story create quite a contrast to the Christmas story with its Silent Night, peace on earth, and so on. The Jesus story is in the tradition of a hero’s story, and the escape of the infant from the threat of death is a firm piece of it, which somehow penetrated many cultures. Moses, Gilgamesh, Sargon, Zoroaster, Cyrus, Apollo, Perseus, Hercules, Romulus and Remus, Augustus, John the Baptist (according to the ProtoEvangelium of James), and after the time of Christ, Pope Gregory the Great and Charlemagne were all made to fit this strange hero mold of the baby born into danger. When Jesus goes down to Egypt and returns to Israel, he replays not only the experience of Israel but also the experience of “the hero with a thousand faces.” In another context, I would talk about the openness of Scripture for us, its offer of a redemptive story that we must bring to bear on our own stories, and the value of reading the Bible individually and together. But for now I would invite us, rather more obliquely as the gospel writer does, to ponder the richly textured identity of this Jesus and to ask what it means for our own. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2020 Philip H. Towner