Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents
(Revised Common Lectionary)

 Jeremiah 31:15-17; Psalm 124; Revelation to John 21:1-7; Matthew 2:13-18

The text of the Book of Jeremiah hears the plaintive crying of Rachel, one of the wives of Jacob, and mother of Joseph, who died in childbirth with Benjamin.  At this time of crisis, when Jerusalem is destroyed and her people marched into captivity into Babylon, she cries from her tomb in Bethlehem for her children, "because they are no more."  Yet, despite such pain and defeat, the text declares: "there is hope for your future."

The psalmist recalls a time of personal/national peril when we were "up to our necks" in trouble.  Yet, we escaped like a bird from a trap.

The record of the strange and captivating vision of John begins its conclusion with an announcement:  "I saw a new heaven and a new earth" that replaced all that had come before.  It follows with a vision of a "new Jerusalem," "prepared as a bride for her husband."  These startling images are preparation for a staggering announcement: "See, the home of God is among mortals," making God's presence known in specific actions-- God "will wipe every tear from their eyes."  Death will cease, eliminating any need for mourning.  You can write this down: "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."  Those who thirst for God will receive from God "the water of life."  The seal of intimacy and relationship is "I will be their God and they will be my children."

"In the theology of Israel," writes Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, New York: Doubleday, 1977, p.216), "the persecution in Egypt and the Exile [in Babylon] were the two greatest trials to which God's people had been subjected; and the Exodus and the return [to Jerusalem] from Exile were the two greatest manifestations of Yahweh's protective power."  Fr. Brown goes on to explicate in considerable detail exactly how Matthew's narrative, which sends the Holy Family into Egypt and describes the machinations of Herod who massacres the children of Bethlehem, evokes both seminal tragedies and salvation events and concludes, "this Jesus, who is to save God's people (1:21) relives both great past moments of divine salvation." 

Jeremiah writes in  a time of crisis so dire God's people face the very real possibility of annihilation.  He expresses the fear and despair dramatically and poignantly.  He hears Rachel weeping across the centuries from her tomb in Bethlehem for her children who "are no more."  Matthew and the author of the Revelation to John write in another time of crisis-- rebellion, social and economic chaos, intrigue, plots, terrorism and an oppressive invader who is ruthless in rooting out and destroying everything that is holy to God's people.  Against basic common sense and out of nowhere, Jeremiah declares: "there is hope for your future."  Matthew's narrative makes vivid those terrifying times in his story of the machinations of the paranoid, megalomaniac Herod, who inflicts a sweeping infanticide on God's people.  But the arc of Matthew's narrative is deliverance of God's people in the Person of Jesus, the Christ and John's Revelation concludes with a dazzling assertion of assurance.

Biblical hope originates totally outside any human structure, logic, understanding, imagination or any known frame of reference.  It is hope beyond anything we might hop on our own.  biblical hope is sui generis. 

Jean-Louis Chretien writes in The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For of this peculiar kind of hope.  "Hope disassociates itself from all calculation.  It is the access to what is without access...."  (p.104) It arises when we have stopped hoping; it becomes even the "unhoped for."  Chretien continues"  "The unhoped for is what transcends all our expectations, and the inaccessible is that to which no path takes us, whether it is one that is already traced or one that we project in thought."  (p.105)  

Yet, Jeremiah declares, "there is hope for your future."  Matthew's narrative concludes with a risen Christ authorizing all who are willing to take to the whole world this message and work of "unhoped for" hope.  And the Revelation of John records that he has been privileged to see the whole human story, from  beginning to end, and the astounding twist in that story is that God made the choice to be "home among mortals" in the Person of Jesus, the Christ. 

Chretien discovers: "At the point where Revelation permits hope to become hope in God and confidence in God's promise, the unhoped for is charged with a new meaning.  The hope in the unhoped for is the hope of Abraham." (p.107)

Biblical hope originates outside any human experience, but it can transform even the most hopeless circumstances.