The second Sunday of Advent has passed. The second candle in the Advent wreath has been lit in the name of peace. The tree has been cut from a hillside of firs or pulled out of storage and assembled in the living room. The Christmas shopping list has been checked and double-checked.
A perfect time to look forward to the agonizing Year A lectionary readings of the First Sunday after Christmas: the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23).
Many pastors take the First Sunday after Christmas as a much-needed vacation Sunday — or at least, I did — and it can be tempting to escape this gospel reading by scheduling a guest preacher in one’s place (who, most likely, will not touch the Matthew text with a ten-foot pole).
And yet the slaughter of the innocents is not simply an unsettling Christmas-buzz-kill gospel story. The slaughter of the innocents is the daily headline in our modern world.
Sandy Hook. Trayvon. Renisha. Syria. Central African Republic. Philadelphia. Gun violence. Drone strikes. Bullying. Cars exploding, malls popping with gunfire, storms devastating homes. Young men and women picking up arms for war. Young men and women fleeing from war. Sexual harassment and rape of our children. Girls and boys dismissed, undermined, injured, overlooked because their complexions are brown and black. Our children are dying, Rachel is still weeping…
…and Christmas didn’t fix that.
There is a theological problem on the First Sunday after Christmas: Emmanuel has come and the problems of the world remain. And regardless of whether or not the pastor is on vacation, worship on the First Sunday after Christmas holds the opportunity (the obligation) to honestly and pastorally account for the mourning in the world and in our lives.
Perhaps worship attendance is light on that post-Christmas Sunday. Perhaps it seems distasteful to set a tone that is less than light-hearted; after all, there are only so many Sundays when it is liturgically fitting to sing Christmas carols.
Then again, the role of Advent/Christmas worship is not to put the feel-good icing on the cake of the holidays. Contrary to popular opinion, the responsibility of the Church is not to enable contentment in the pews but rather to embody transformation in the world. Emmanuel has come, and we celebrate his birth not because we need more presents and holiday meals in our lives, but because we need God With Us in our lives desperately.
The First Sunday after Christmas lays bare our need for God’s presence by retelling the nightmare of the world’s suffering: children killed without a second thought, families on the run for their lives, people making desperate choices just to survive. To honor the solemnity of the gospel reading on the First Sunday after Christmas is to attend to the very real disenchantment that we face in those days following Christmas when we look at ourselves and we look at our world in the mirror…and we lament to see that we are unchanged by Christ’s coming.
One: Recount the gracious deeds of the LORD.
All: Because the tales of our deeds and the tales of our world are too disheartening to tell.
One: Recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, who dwells among us with grace.
All: Emmanuel is here, even amidst our distress. Emmanuel is here, because of our distress.
One: Listen as the snow and frost call out God’s praise.
All: Listen as the children who are suffering cry out in God’s name.
One: Listen as the moon and the stars ring out their songs to the glory of God.
All: Listen as the angel whispers, “The LORD is near. Do not be afraid.”
One: In the unsettled silence that follows our Christmas celebrations, we pray:
All: We are at a loss, O God, to make sense of suffering in the season of Christmas. The best of joy and love cannot erase the pain and suffering of this life, and we add our cries to Rachel’s lament: for children who are hungry; for persons who are not safe at home; for women and girls who are undervalued, overlooked and abused; for our relationships that are broken; for the lonely and the lost; for the distressed and the discouraged. O LORD, hear our prayer. Come and be among us, not in a manger as a babe, but in our world as a savior. Let the wind and the mountains and the seas continue to sing your song as we recover our voices from weeping and learn to sing with the hope of your glory among us. Amen.
(Liturgy written on the texts of Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, and Matthew 2:13-23.)