Sunday after Christmas – 29 December 2020
Reader Sherry Angelis – St Paul’s Athens
What a glorious week this is, as we celebrate the miraculous birth of the Messiah – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We come to realize that because of this new born Infant in Bethlehem, Heaven and Earth have been brought to overlap once and for all. The place where God’s space and our space intersect and interlock is in Jesus.
Keeping this most precious Child with us awhile longer, let’s take a deeper look at the Infancy narrative in the Gospel according to the Apostle Matthew. The Evangelist is writing for his fellow Jews in order to present Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah – the Son of David.
In his Gospel, more than any other, is found the link between the Old Testament and the New, the old Israel and the new world-wide Church of people.
So true are the words, “Novum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet.” “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old becomes visible in the New.”
We soon discover how insightful Matthew is as he illustrates the way God has prepared for the arrival of His own Son within the history of Israel. The author continually appropriates the Old Testament language in the interest of amplifying the New. He is proving, step by step that Jesus fulfills the prophetic messianic hopes and expectations of the people of God.
Writing in this manner, Matthew also helps relate the story of Israel to the Gentiles, thus familiarizing them with the background of Jesus the Christ. They learn that this is not the first time the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has acted in the world for His people.
Right at the onset of the Gospel is the genealogy of Jesus Christ. The Evangelist does more than just relate our Lord to David, as he shows Jesus’ lineage going back to the great Patriarch Abraham, who is not only the Father of the Jewish nation but also the Father of many nations, and through him all the families of the Earth shall be blessed. The genealogy includes even Gentiles, such as Rehab and Ruth.
As we continue, we find Matthew saturating his writings with both quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament by introducing many of them with the formula “that it might be fulfilled.” He is ever joining and blending the story of Jesus with these, showing mirror images of new and old.
The first two chapters are enveloped with an aura of the miraculous, in the Evangelist’s rich style. We find Heavenly Angels, the brilliant, guiding Star, Magi bringing valuable gifts, a murdering King and more. These things are enthralling and very easy for readers to remember. There is, too, the how and where of the Virgin birth of our Lord, with testimonia from the Old Testament prophets – Isaiah, Micah, and Samuel.
So much can be said, unfortunately though, time nudges us on to a more detailed look at today’s reading, with only a few necessary digressions.
As we begin in Chapter 2, verse 13, we find the words, “Now when they had departed,” ‘they’ referring to the wise men from the east, or the astrologers, or Kings, or Magi as they have also been called. The previous verses 1-12 tell their story – a tale of how these visitors have come to worship the Holy Infant whom they truly believe to be King of the Jews.
This particular section of the Narrative will be our Gospel reading next Sunday as we celebrate Epiphany. For the time being, suffice it to say two things. First, these Eastern Gentiles are another step in crossing the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, as it was well known that such visitors had often come to pay homage to various Kings of Israel.
And second, these men, in their simplicity of heart, had inadvertently endangered the very life of the Babe they had come to worship by becoming the innocent instruments of King Herod’s murderous designs to kill the Infant-Savior.
Now for our reading, in which we learn of Joseph, dreams, flight to and return from Egypt, a power-hungry despot, and the senseless killing of innocent babies.
Are you reminded, perhaps, of some stories from the Old Testament? I should hope so! It would certainly be familiar to Jewish readers, as they would recall the Patriarch Joseph from very long ago, who had been a great interpreter of dreams from God and had saved the entire family of Israel by bringing them to Egypt. There was, too, the envious Pharaoh who ordered the murdering of all Jewish male babies; through divine intervention, however, the infant Moses was saved and later was called by God to come out of Egypt.
Returning to Matthew, we immediately recognise the flowing stream of allusions. The ever obedient Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, is told by God in a dream to take the new-born Child and His Mother and flee to Egypt because King Herod is planning to kill the Child. Joseph does exactly as he is told and the Holy Family remains there until the death of Herod and God’s calling. Matthew lets us know that this has been done to fulfill the words spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt, I called My Son.”
In verse 18, Matthew quotes from Jeremiah, saying again that what the prophet had spoken is now fulfilled. “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” The distress of the Hebrew mothers at the time of the Babylonian captivity receives a deeper significance by the weeping mothers of Bethlehem, since Herod has slaughtered all children two years and under in his attempt to destroy the Infant Jesus.
These children – the Holy Innocents – have been venerated in the Christian Church as martyrs since ancient times. They are the “flores Martyrum” – the first flowers of the Church killed by the frost of persecution. Our Church honours them on December 28th.
In closing the Narrative, the Evangelist informs us the Holy Family does return to Israel, as they come to dwell in Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets. “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Not everyone agrees as to the exact meaning here, but most likely the term Nazarene is a reference to the Hebrew term “netser,” meaning branch, sprout or shoot as found in Isaiah. “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” Taking this title, “Nazarene,” in its Jewish significance, it has meaning not only to Jews but to all mankind.
The idea of Jesus as the divinely placed “Branch,” small and despised in its forth-shooting, but destined to miraculously grow throughout eternity, is marvellously true to the whole history of the Christ.
So today, with what we have been hearing, and what we know already, let us ask our Awesome Lord to bless all children – every place and every time.