17 - Sunday After Christmas, The Holy Innocents, Dec 29, 2013

Galatians 1:11-19

Matthew 2:13-23

Surely, what claims our attention most in this morning’s Gospel is this tragic fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “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.” (Jer 31:15. Orthodox Study Bible (OSB) 38:15) How is such a disturbing story part of the Gospel, the Good News, of Christmas?

At the time of Jeremiah, Judah was threatened by Babylon. Jeremiah saw that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed and the Jews taken captive to Babylon (Jer 8:17 OSB) because Israel would not repent of her idolatry. Jeremiah, like the mothers in this morning’s Gospel, wept: “I am grieved because of the ruin of the daughter of my people…Who will give a fountain of tears to my eyes that I might weep day and night for this people of mine?” (Jer 8:19-21 OSB)

The name, Rachel, in Hebrew is a ewe, a “mother” sheep. “Rachel weeping for her children,” then becomes, “The ewe weeping for her lost sheep.” One thinks immediately of the Theotokos and of all her “weeping icons”. She is “Rachel” weeping for her children, you and me, because we are “dead in our sins and trespasses.” (Eph 2:1) Like the children of Israel, we have been taken captive not by the king of Babylon and not by Herod but by him who holds us in the power of death, the devil, because of our idolatry. Do we not worship the goddess, Aphrodite, in our lust, our sexual immorality? Do we not offer sacrifice to the god, Mars, when we are angry without cause? Do we not join ourselves to Pluto in our greed and covetousness?

And so, God has given us over to our lovers as he warned repeatedly through His prophets (e.g. Eze 16:35ff.) They have destroyed the Jerusalem of our soul and the temple of our secret heart. We have been stripped naked of the robe of God’s Glory that clothed us in the beginning. Our souls, like the children of the mothers of Bethlehem, have been put to the sword and we are beset by an inconsolable grief that falls on us in the form of anxiety and fear, depression and despair.

However, when one goes to this prophecy of Jeremiah, “Rachel weeping for her children,” one discovers that it is part of a prophecy filled with hope and joy, with notes of resurrection: “Therefore, they shall come and sing in the height of Zion (a prophetic reference to the Theotokos)…their soul shall be as a watered garden, and they shall not sorrow anymore at all. Then shall the virgin rejoice, for I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.” Now we come to “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping: Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted because her children were not.” But, the prophecy continues: “Thus saith the LORD: ‘Refrain from thy weeping, for thy work shall be rewarded, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy (Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death), and there is hope in thine end, that thy children shall come again to their own border.’ (and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!)” (Jer 31:12-17 [OSB, chptr 38])

Look more closely at this morning’s Gospel. It says that the angel of the LORD appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to “Wake up! (as from death, is what the Greek can mean) and take the child and His mother to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to seek the child to destroy Him.” So, Joseph takes the LORD and His Mother down to Egypt.

Now, in the theological symbolism of the Church, Egypt represents hell, or the place of the dead; for, it is the home of the demons who inhabit the idols of the pagan nations (Ps 96:5 – All the gods of the nations are demons; but, the LORD made heaven and earth.) On the level of this symbolism, Joseph is taking the LORD Jesus down to the place of the dead, to hell, where the demons dwell.

 Now, in the Church, we hear this story: when the holy family came into Egypt, they entered a pagan temple in Cairo, and all the idols in that temple fell down and were shattered. The Holy Theotokos entered another temple, containing 365 idols, and all those idols fell and were shattered; and so it happened throughout Egypt as it had been foretold by Isaiah and Jeremiah. “Behold, the LORD rides upon a swift cloud,” writes Isaiah, “and He shall come into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence.” (Isa 19:1) In Jeremiah we find: “He shall break the idols of Bethshemesh that is in the land of Egyt, and the houses of the gods of the Egyptians shall he burn with fire.” (Jer 43:12-13) (Prologue of Ohrid II, p. 711).

That is to say, what is popularly called the “Flight into Egypt” is a prefigurement of Christ’s Holy Pascha, when He descends into hell and tramples down death by His death, giving life to those in the tombs.

What comes into view from all of this is the Good News of Christmas that hides beneath the lamentation of Rachel weeping for her children. When the “holy innocents” are put to the sword, they discover when they descend to the place of the dead that the LORD is already there to meet them as the Child born of the Virgin, the First-born of the dead. For, who is this Christ Child who meets them in as in the place of the dead? As He tells Martha and Mary at the grave of Lazarus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me, even if he is dead, yet shall he live.” (Jn 11:25)

Perhaps now we begin to understand why this dark and disturbing story is such an integral part of the Gospel, the Good News of Christmas that it is read not once but several times over the course of the Feast. It is the story of Christ’s Holy Pascha already beginning to shine at His Nativity. And now, we see that Rachel weeping for her children is the Theotokos, weeping inconsolably for her Holy Innocent One, Christ her Son and our God, when she held Him dead in the tomb, because she believed that He “was no more!” 

This “Christmas” prophecy of Jeremiah has taken us to stand with His Mother, the “Ewe” of Him who is the “Lamb of God,” at the foot of the Cross. Perhaps we begin to understand why this prophecy of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more,” continues: “Thus saith the LORD: ‘Refrain from thy weeping…for, there is hope in thine end…” It is the lamentation of the Theotokos at the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday that turns into praises as she begins to understand in the first light of her Son’s resurrection: the birth of God in the flesh means that God has partaken of our flesh and blood so that He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is the devil (Herod) and to deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Heb 2:14-15)

“Out of Egypt have I called my Son,” my son, Adam. (Lk 3:38) Christ is the New Adam born of the New Eve, who descends into hell, into “Egypt”, looking for Rachel’s children, the children of Eve who like sheep have strayed and each gone their own way. (Isa 53:6) He is looking for His first-born son, Adam, as He began to do already in the Garden when He called out, “Adam, where are you?” so that He might put Him on His shoulders and carry him in His Holy Resurrection out of Egypt, out of the slavery of the passions, up to His own glory and virtue, so that, having delivered him from the corruption that is in the world, He might make him to become partaker of His own divine nature. (II Pt 1:3-4)

Rachel weeps for her children. The lamentation of the Theotokos turns into the joy of her Son’s Resurrection. But now, she weeps for us. Do you hear in this the Good News of Christmas? God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, the Resurrection and the Life, born of the Virgin to become flesh and to dwell among us, even in Egypt, even in hell, that whoever believes in Him, even though he is dead in his sins and trespasses – even though he should seem to be no more – yet shall he live in the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection!” Glory to Jesus Christ! Christ is born! Most holy Theotokos, save us! Amen.