(RNS) — Here at the end of the Christmas season, the Gospel of Matthew becomes a horror story.
For Protestant preachers in the U.S. who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for the Sunday after Christmas Day is from the Gospel of Matthew, second chapter, verses 13 through 18. The arrival of wise men bearing gifts? The star in the East? No, it’s the brutality of power and the murder of children.
This passage is known in Western Christian Classics 101 as “The Flight into Egypt” plus “The Massacre of the Innocents.” There are many imprudent online sermon “helps” on this passage, but if you are faced with preaching on this text, I recommend you avoid describing Jesus, Mary and Joseph as “resilient refugees.”
Even those who do not attend church may remember paintings of postpartum Mary riding on a donkey. The massacre of the innocents is less popular a motif, but it shows up in places like the 16th-century “Coventry Carol” in traditional English Christmas collections: “Herod the king, in his raging, Chargèd he hath this day; His men of might in his own sight, All young children to slay.”
In short, the Jewish king Herod has heard that a king has been born in his jurisdiction and has sent his hitmen out to rid the land of any newborn males. To be safe, he sets the cutoff at 2-year-olds. An angel warns Joseph of Herod’s plot and takes Mary and the baby Jesus off to Egypt, where Herod’s men won’t be looking.
Now, these events are not easily translated to our modern American lives, and white, mainline Protestant preachers, who are trained to relate their sermons to their congregants’ lives, are keen to “make sense” of bizarre or tragic biblical stories by reaching for terms in the zeitgeist to explain them. Terms such as “resilience.”
One way to study history in North America is through sermons, and one way to study history through sermons is to study the key words that were repeated by preachers across a particular strand of Christianity during a certain era. The word “resilience” was already trending in the U.S. before the pandemic and is today linguistically pasted to everything from human families to corn crops to crocodiles. Calling the Holy Family models of resilience molds their experience in what became Christmas into a moral for our age.
Preachers, please don’t.
We can’t, on the other hand, just ignore the passage. In most churches, the story will at least have been read aloud from the lectern. Even younger children will perk up at hearing the words: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were 2 years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” Leaving that just hanging around the greenery is irresponsible.
One way some people reckon with the unfathomably horrible is to find an ethical route out — literally, the Roman road from Judea to Egypt. The Holy Family escaped into Egypt, their baby is saved from the decree, all because they had ears to hear the angel’s warning to Joseph.
But why them? The obvious answer, to the writer of the book of Matthew, is that Jesus is the Son of God. Period. For a person appointed to interpret Scripture to people who want more logical answers, however, there has to be a real-world application. So Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are depicted not as the recipients of a miraculous reprieve from heaven, but as refugees capable of resilience.
Hear how different that Gospel would be if someone rewrote the Beatitudes by this lesson. Blessed are the resilient, for they shall live to see another day. Blessed are the strong in spirit. Their children may have children. Blessed are those who have saved. Their elders will not die alone during a deadly plague.
The notion that some people survive war because they are resilient has become commonplace. The notion that life is about survival by your wits has become commonplace. This all works well if you are trying to convince people that the Gospel says something other than what it says.
Joseph heard an angel. That makes no sense. Herod the king, in his raging, ordered all young children to be slain. This makes no sense. Herod was in charge and determined to stay there. Insanity. We may recognize it in our times, equally dark, but we need not make sense of it.
Instead, I will be grateful to offer some bread, some grape juice, and declare that God is present. None of this makes any sense. Please don’t give the children, or their mothers, a moral. Give them bread.
(Amy Laura Hall is associate professor of Christian ethics and of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke Divinity School. She is the author, most recently, of “Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World With Julian of Norwich.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)