Christmas

Matthew Chapter 2 Opening the Gift of Christmas

Matthew Chapter 2  Opening The Gift Of Christmas

This is a reflection on Christmas seen mainly from Mt. Ch. 2.  And by the way this is not late for Christmas!  Christmas is not over, even in the Latin, or what is also called the Roman Rite.  All Solemnities are celebrated for eight days!  So the week after the Feast of Epiphany is considered and celebrated as Christmas in liturgies.  What is within liturgies should be within the lived liturgy – our life.  For those of our brothers and sisters in faith who belong to the Eastern Rites – Christmas is just beginning!  It continues into February.  The Celebration of the Manifestation of Jesus, known as the Epiphany, is the original feast of what we call Christmas, celebrating the Manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles.   All of us who are not Jewish are Gentiles.  It was a couple of hundred years after the Epiphany was being celebrated before the date of Christmas was set. This should give us pause to think in the western world, that civilization is much bigger than us – spiritually and economically!

It is necessary to open the gift of Christmas – the first manifestation of Jesus in the flesh to all the world.  (It is important to state from the start, that Christmas is not the day that Jesus became man!  That is the event celebrated at the Annunciation.)  The second manifestation of Christ is the feast that we call Epiphany, and the third manifestation is the Baptism of the Lord.  The fourth manifestation is the Wedding feast at Cana.  In the Eastern Catholic Church each of these manifestations or Epiphanies is celebrated as one continuous feast – much like the Easter Triduum – the Passion, death, and Resurrection is one feast of three day duration.

So Christmas is the first manifestation of Jesus in the flesh – his birth.  A manifestation, an epiphany is to show , to reveal.  Jesus was not shown, revealed to only Mary, Joseph and animals in a manger.  We know from Luke’s Gospel account, Chapter 2, that Heaven revealed it to Shepherd’s, telling them to go to the stable in Bethlehem, because “ to you is born today in the City of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

The first half of chapter 2 in the Gospel according to Matthew is the recounting of the visit of the Magi, which we call the Epiphany, the second manifestation of Jesus in the flesh. These were men of spiritual integrity who had journeyed, who had sought, in humble faith, unafraid of what they did not know or understand. Their souls had been awakened to the truth of God through the study of his creation. They stand as a testimony to our teaching that all salvation comes through Jesus.  They were not Jews.  They were in fact the first Gentiles to respond to the call of Jesus who announces himself in too many ways to count – even in the stars!  These men of learning obviously had open minds and hearts, and because of this had experienced Jesus who calls himself – the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  These were men in pursuit of the truth. There had been an awakening within them by means of their study and knowledge of astronomy and maybe even astrology.  God reveals himself to all of us, through all of his creation,  if we are of open heart and mind. This study became the way that Jesus used to lead them to the truth, that is himself – the truth that would change their lives.  If Jesus in his first two years was able to speak he might have said, as he said later in his life about another gentile, a centurion – “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel!” (Lk 7:9).  In Chapter 2 of Matthew, it is as if Matthew was trying to show us that Jesus had begun his public ministry at his birth – his death being as imminent at his birth as it was in his adult ministry!  If we truly reflect on the Christian message there is little room for mushy feelings about a cute baby! The Gospel account of his birth places his birth firmly into the Passion of Jesus. Nor is it possible for pious fantasy about a cozy family life.  After the visit of the Magi the family must flee from their homeland to save their son’s life.

If we jump for a moment to the account of Jesus birth, in chapter 2 of Luke, we learn that by his birth, before preaching a word, Jesus has disturbed the powerful, rich and wayward leaders of his people! The Shepherds, considered the lowest of the low, hear of his birth in a heavenly message.  Jesus has not yet opened his mouth to preach one word!  It is a little ironic that the saint who gave us the tradition of the Crèche, was also the saint who said “preach always and when necessary use words”. (St. Francis of Assisi)   Herod was less than thrilled by the searching Magi!  In fact Herod was utterly conniving.  Herod, a Jew, although one who aligned himself with the Roman occupiers of Judea, was treated with respect by the Magi.  Herod showed his true colours, – a man of fear, narcissistic, and lacking in a knowledge of his Jewish faith. His apparent desire to help the Magi find “the infant king of the Jews” was a thinly veiled desire to protect his power.  He lies very easily. This is a stark juxtaposition to the Magi’s desire to come to know the Truth – Jesus, who was to call himself “The Truth”!

Jesus’ birth and early infancy parallels his public ministry that results in his death. He lives his public ministry as he lived his first days – with no where permanent to lay his head!   Already, we learn in Luke 2 that Jesus has shown his preferential option for the poor, the outcast and the sinner all synonymous with the shepherd. The shepherds came with all the dirt and smell and grime of the sheepfolds (Lk 2:8-20).   This is a wonderful teaching of Jesus, without words, about how the shepherds of his church should deport themselves! There is nothing high and mighty about these men.  Not only is a sheepfold smelly – so is a manger!  The Magi were not put off by the simplicity of the surroundings with which they found Jesus.  They are attracted by his light, to his light – Jesus the Light of the World!   What was a star over their heads becomes now a radiance of truth in front of them and within them!  As they pay homage to Jesus, they are infused with his light. Jesus is upsetting the ‘apple cart’ so to speak, of the safe, daily order of life of the Jewish society of his day. And, he is not even walking or talking yet!

The Magi come prepared with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Before ever seeing Jesus in person they were interiorly convinced that this child was a King, gold; God, frankincense; one destined to suffer, myrrh.   Matthew tells us the Magi returned by “another way” having been warned in a dream to avoid Herod.  The star that they followed had ignited them as human beings, rousing their very souls.  They have been enlightened.  A sign of this enlightenment that has taken over their beings is, that like Joseph, and other great figures of the Old Testament, they hear the Lord in a dream!   Luke tells us that the Shepherds left “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen!”  These two groups of men had been changed!  Not only were the Magi walking a different path home – avoiding Herod and his wrath – but within their lives they were walking a different path – the narrow way about which Jesus was to later preach.  They were following ‘the way’ – Jesus.  But,Herod, a Jew, rejects Jesus as he desperately clings to his power and prestige which he sees as threatened.  The Magi are so in tune with the depth of their being that even in sleep they are awake to the Lord.  They have seen his star; they have seen the Lord, and now in a dream they hear his word.  This child who has not yet spoken a word, has converted sinners – the outcast, unclean shepherds  –  and Gentiles who have never heard of the promised Messiah, nor lived in anticipation of the prophets’ messages.

In this chapter of Matthew we are brought abruptly face to face with the corruption that comes with political power, that is lived for the sole purpose of self aggrandizement!  We are told by Matthew that Herod was frightened by the message of the Magi.  Power that is not lived in service is a false power, and results in brutality both overtly and covertly.  It is very difficult to stay on the narrow path when one has power and wealth!  The Middle East was in no better political shape at the time of Jesus than it is now.  Israel was an occupied nation.  Its leaders kept their power by aligning themselves with the Romans.  As with any of us when we sacrifice our integrity and our faith for worldly gain we become corrupt and brutal, so it was with Herod and his successors.  Life for the ordinary citizen was unstable.  Jesus and his parents at his birth and during his early years, share a common reality with those who now live in the unstable, war torn Middle East, and with those who live in the so called Third World, along with those who live in war fractured countries all over the world; and with those on the streets and slums of the rich world.

Like Pharaoh, hundreds of years before, at the time of Moses, Herod, in fear and anger, has sent out an edict to kill all male children of two years of age and under. They are innocent!  They have done nothing to harm anyone but in the despotism of false power that does not find its anchor in faith, it is always the defenseless who are victimized!  Mary, Joseph and their young child flee, becoming exiles, in Egypt, displaced persons, living as refugees!  Upon returning home after a couple of years, they find that they could not go back to their own region, Bethlehem of the house of David, because of political unrest.  They become displaced persons within their own land! They had to start over!  All of this upheaval, and insecurity came about because of political corruption.  The parents of Jesus were frightened for his well-being.  This sociopolitical reality does not make for a cozy, idyllic family life!  It does make for a family life lived on the firm foundation of faith – no matter what the circumstances of life – no matter how little physical sustenance or security exists.  This calls to mind St. Paul saying in his Letter to the Philippians – “He did not cling to equality with God.  But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are.” (Phil. 2:6,7) The family fled into Egypt to live as exiles, refugees, where generations before their people were, just as Paul says – “slaves”.    It can be said of Jesus from the moment of his birth, that he and his parents witnessed in their family life –  what Vatican 11 states as the call of the Church – ‘a preferential option for the poor.’  This is delineated quite clearly in Matthew’s account of the Last judgement in chapter 25.  We, today are surrounded in our world by the those experiencing what Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced in their fight into Egypt.  Christmas calls us to take to heart the Last Judgement account.  What an utterly direct life path can be traced from Jesus’ birth with an attempt to kill him, to his death on the Cross!

The Christmas story – that is the Birth, the Visitation of the Shepherds, the Visitation of the Magi, the threat to the lives of all male children of two years of age and under, the flight into Egypt, the return to nothing except upheaval in their family district, the decision to settle in Nazareth – all of this in its reality contains much more than a manger scene.  The manger scene that we surround in romance, is only a small part of the story of Jesus’ birth.  Unless we see the reality of the manger as a star of love that points us in the direction of the cross lived daily by the poor, those whose lives are ravaged by war, by fear, by destitution, by the evil of greed in our daily lives we are missing the message.  Jesus was born into a very real world! We are called to reflect on how much security we surround ourselves with, even within our faith!  We are called to be unafraid; to step out in loving faith; to pursue the truth; to be light in the darkness; to see with new eyes.  Remember that when Jesus was eight days old Mary was told that her son was destined for the rise and fall of many and that she herself would suffer.  Not long after this they had to run away to save his life! All of this is part of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus.   What a strange way to announce “Peace on earth!” “Do not be afraid” the angel told the shepherds.   He came to announce  “Peace” in the midst of chaos! Inner peace in the light of truth is what the Magi came to.  Thus they followed a different path.
He made exactly the same announce in the chaos of his death – “Do not be afraid” he told Mary Magdalene.(Mt. 28:5;9,10)  To the frightened Apostles at the Ascension he told them to get on with the work that he had begun and had given over to them. They well knew that persecution and death were part of this work!  Christmas in all of its facets cannot be separated from the Paschal Mystery!    When we open the gift of Christmas we must find the Paschal Mystery!  This I believe is what Matthew wants us to realize as he recounts the first years of Jesus life.