|13 - Sunday After Christmas, Rachel Weeping, Dec 27 2015 (with audio)
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As disturbing as this Gospel story of Herod murdering innocent children is, it is equally compelling. It jars us out of our worldly tendency to reduce Christmas to a sentimental tale of the “Baby Jesus”. It grabs us by the ear, and demands that we “read” the “Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ” taking full account of the darkness in which the Light of Christ now shines. This Gospel catches our attention and challenges us to make sense of it, which I find myself trying to do every year at this time.
I presently see three keys to unlocking the meaning of this unspeakably tragic event at the heart of Christmas. One key is that the prophecy St Matthews draws from, in order to present its theological meaning, is Jeremiah (chptr 31 KJV, chptr 38 OSB or LXX). Another is that we read this Gospel at the Divine Liturgy for the Synaxis of the Theotokos on Dec 26, together with what the name, Rachel, means. And, I see a third key in the flight to Egypt by night (see 2:13-14).
However, keys imply a lock to be unlocked. The lock to be unlocked here so that the door swings open to reveal the meaning of this Gospel of the Holy Innocents is the history Israel – and, as we shall see, a fortiori the biography of our own soul. For, this event did not begin with the Wise Men coming to the palace of Herod in Jerusalem. It began when Israel first fell away from God and turned to worship the idols of her neighbors. She gave herself over to the gods that dwelt in those idols and so she fell into their power and became their slave even as she had been the slave of Pharaoh in Egypt. Listen to Ezekiel: “I [the LORD] said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. But, they rebelled against me and would not listen to me. They did not forsake the idols of Egypt.’” (Eze 20:7-8) “’You played the harlot with the Egyptians, the Assyrians, with the Chaldeans. Therefore, I will give you over into the hand of your lovers.’” (Eze 16:26-39ff.) And the lovers or idols to whom Israel had given herself destroyed her. The nation of Israel was no more, and the Israelites who were not slaughtered were taken into exile.
They were driven from the Promised Land just as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden; for, like Adam and Eve, they had become children of the serpent, and so children of disobedience and wrath. The law of sin, the law of the prince of the power of the air that dwelt in the idols they worshipped was now active in them (Eph 2:1) so that the things of God they could not do even though they might want to do them (Rom 7). They were in bondage to the devil, as they had been to Pharaoh, who held them in his power through the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
We read again in Ezekiel: “You took your sons and daughters whom you had born to me, and you sacrificed them to your idols to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering of fire to the gods of your idols? (Eze 16:20-21) What this means for this “terrible” Gospel of the Holy Innocents is that Herod is the power of the idols that Israel loved and into whose hands God had given her over in the anger of His exasperation over the stubbornness of their constant infidelity. Herod is the power of the devil who lives in the idols Israel worshipped and that now murders the innocent children, so that Israel sees in horror the real character of those idols she gave herself to.
Beloved faithful, this history of Israel, a history of unceasing and stubborn idolatry, is the biography of our spirit. We are idolaters. We give in to anger and we offer sacrifices to the god, Ares. We give in to lust and we offer sacrifices to Aphrodite. We give in to greed and we offer sacrifices to Poseidon. The gods become our lords, our Pharaohs who enslave us by our passions so that, anymore, we cannot not give in to anger, we cannot not give in to lust or to greed, and so with all the passions that are now active in us as the law of sin that is active in our earthly members, making us children of wrath and children of disobedience, exiled from the homeland of our heart so that we cannot be who or what we were created to be, children of God. What before was innocent in us has been slaughtered and is no more, and tragically, in our enslavement to the law of sin that is active in us, we often destroy the innocence of others. Too late, do we see the real character of all those passions we so blithely and witlessly and without a fight gave ourselves to. They are so many Herods that murder our souls, and we are made to be slaves of fear, anger and grief.
A key, as I said, for unlocking this Gospel’s theological meaning is that St Matthew draws this prophecy of “Rachel weeping for her children” from Jeremiah (Jer 31:15). Jeremiah was prophesying when Judah was threatened by Babylon, the consequence of her idolatry. The LORD says to Jeremiah: “I will give Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon. He shall carry them captive to Babylon and slay them with the sword.” (Jer 20:4) But then, after they had been taken captive by Babylon, the Word of the LORD came again to Jeremiah with words of deliverance and resurrection. It is in this word of hope that we find this prophecy, “Rachel weeping for her children” (Jer 31:15) giving Israel to know that even though she abandoned the LORD, the LORD has not abandoned her and that the promise is still hers, if she would repent and turn to the LORD still.
Now, “Rachel” is a “Ewe” (a mother sheep). The Church calls the Blessed Theotokos a Ewe in her liturgical texts; and, as I said, at the Divine Liturgy for the Synaxis of the Theotokos, this Gospel of “Rachel weeping for her Children” is read. Most certainly, “Rachel” here refers to all the “mother sheep” whose children were murdered by Herod; but, I believe that on the deepest, theological level, the “Rachel” who was weeping for these “holy innocents” was, in fact, the Theotokos as she fled with Joseph to Egypt at the command of the Angel of the LORD, her Son. It makes me wonder if this is where we find the meaning of all those weeping icons of the Theotokos.
Finally, the third key: the flight to Egypt. Bethlehem is not far from Hebron, where Abraham “sojourned” (Heb 11:9) and where Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the “seed” of the Israelite nation raised to life from the barren womb of Sarah that was as good as dead in a type of resurrection. When, therefore, Joseph is commanded by the Angel of the LORD to take the Child and His Mother into Egypt, the LORD, as the “Son of Abraham,” (Mt 1:1) is retracing the sojourn of Abraham’s seed back to Egypt where Israel’s enslavement to idolatry originated under the Pharaoh, and from which He delivered Israel with His mighty and outstretched arms (as on the Cross! Cf. Dt 5:15 et al.).
Our Gospel this morning sets before us the tragic consequences of our idolatry; they are real, and they are devastating – nothing less than the “murder” of our spirit and her native godlike innocence. When we came into the Church at our baptism, we were “inscribed into the Book of Life,” the “Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.” The life of biblical Israel became the template of our “psychology”, the biography of our soul. Inscribed into that Book of Life, the Theotokos became our Mother, Rachel weeping for us, her children, and for all mankind because of the evil destruction we suffer from our idolatry, such that our likeness to God “is no more”. But, beloved faithful, written into the Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, our life is now hid with Christ in God. Christ is in you. In the mystery of His Incarnation, He goes down to Egypt and makes the history of our soul His own in order to heal us in soul and spirit. Our heart that died and was no more has been raised up in the birth of Christ. If we unite our soul to Christ and work to put to death what is earthly in us, our death is united to His death to become the death of all that destroys us, and we join these Holy Innocents as “martyrs” bearing witness to this Christ who was born of the Virgin for our salvation as Immanuel, “God With us!” O LORD, glory to Thee! Most Holy Theotokos, save us!