“O little town of Bethlehem – the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” (Traditional English carol)
The enchantment and wonder of the feast has arrived! And it’s far from over; in fact it has just begun. The Byzantine Church celebrates the feast until February 2nd on the Gregorian Calendar. The stores are having their sell-out sales, decorations are coming down, no more Christmas music on the radio, and TV specials are ending. We, on the other hands, are just beginning! We continue our Kolady/Carols. We continue to greet each other with the greeting: “Christ is born!” and the answer “Glorify Him!”
I recall celebrating a Christmas Liturgy in Bethlehem many years ago. It was July, the heat was oppressive, and we joined in singing carols at the place of Christ’s birth. Everyday was, and I still hope is, Christmas Day there. Carols and the Christmas Liturgy were celebrated at the place of Christ’s birth everyday. In order to enter the Church of the Nativity, pilgrims must bend down and pass through a four-foot-tall entrance. It doesn’t matter who you are, rich or poor, pope or politician, all are required to bow low to enter the place where Christ humbled Himself to be born on earth.
Bethlehem means “the City of Bread”. And it is a city of so many contradictions. Within recent years it has been torn apart by warring factions. Refugees, soldiers and civilians occupy the Nativity Church. The spirit of the city seems to have died from oppression and injustice. Although the city where the Prince of Peace was born no longer knows lasting peace, there is hope for its future.
The Feast of the Nativity is, like the place where it happened, full of many contradictions. We would like to stay in front of the icons and cribs and be filled with the songs of the angels. We see the wonder and excitement of children as they open presents. The lights of the tress and decorations do give us a sense of inner peace. We so need it. In the background is the fact that we celebrate the feast under the cloud of an Orange Alert with the possibility (and fear) that some part of our nation can be struck with an act of terrorism.
The Gospel reading following the Nativity is from Matthew 2:13-23. It brings together all “hopes and fears of all the years”. There is a tyrannical king who seeks to kill the Infant Christ. The Holy Family must flee for its life during the night. This morning we read of a detachment of soldiers under orders to slaughter all little infant boys. Cries of anguished mothers are heard. All of this with the backdrop of our Christmas decorations and lights. A contradiction? Yes, but part of the hopes and fears of this Feast.
We have still Herod with us. He has many names and faces: recently it has been a Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein. They eventually all pass on into history. The Infant Child survives them all.
“In Ramah a voice is heard-great lamentation – it’s Rachel weeping, there is no comfort for her, her children are no more” (Matthew 2:18) this city of Ramah is the world in which we live. It has been scarred by 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq. And abortion, abuse, military forces, and famine are still slaughtering children. To the question as to how can goodness survive when evil has such an arsenal of military and political power, we must turn to the Mystery of the Nativity. God through Jeremiah speaks: “cease your mourning, wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward says the Lord. There is hope for your future” (Jeremiah 31:16)
“Joseph rose and took the Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt” (Matt. 2:14). A night-time escape to a foreign country is part of the Christmas story. No information is given to us about its length, or what happened to the family. Did they experience being illegal immigrants? There was certainly the experience of prejudice, learning a new language. There was the experience of living in a hostile environment, hostile to their way of life and religion.
But there is hope. Matthew turns to the Prophet Hosea. Hosea tells us of a God Who always shows mercy and never abandons His children.
For this Holy Family and for all of us who experience the fear of terrorism, the pain of life, there are the words of God the Father: “I foster them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks. Yet, though I stooped to feed my children, they did not know that I am the Healer.”
This is the God Who loves His people affectionately. This is God the Father of Jesus, Who cared for Him in His infancy. Through the Nativity of Christ, God offers us a hope – that God the Father will lift us up out of our darkness.
Originally published on December 28th, 2003