I know that if I were in charge of the lectionary, and the world for that matter, things would be so much better organized. We have these ridiculous peaks and valleys built into our lectionary. We go from the excitement and anticipation of Advent to the joy of Christmas to the nadir of Stephen’s martyrdom and the deaths of the Holy Innocents. And this year, our corporate life has reflected this roller coaster a bit more. We had the extra dip associated with the passing of Barb before the pinnacle of Christmas which was, in turn, muted by the ice storm. In some ways, I can so relate to Peter. Lord, I love the mountaintop experiences. Let’s stay here! And even in His Church, there is a built-in reminder that our lives will have spiritual peaks and valleys. There will be times when things seem that all is fine; and there will be times when things seem to be falling apart at the seams. Our liturgical life reminds us that God is every bit as present in the good times as in the bad times. Our liturgical life reminds us that He can redeem the bad in life just as He redeemed Christ’s death on the cross.
Her name was Patty. To back up the story a bit, we had a Christmas service scheduled for Christmas Day. About a dozen or 15 people had asked if we could. Naturally, I agreed. Unfortunately, only one family showed up. Needless to say, Connie felt a bit awkward and a bit selfish for dragging me out of the house on Christmas Day (her words). I told her that others had asked and that it was fine. We gave people some time to arrive and then decided to start the service. Just as I finished my what-passes-for-a-homily-when-only-four-people-are-present, she walked in.
“I am sorry to intrude, but are you having church today.” Yes ma’am, you just missed the homily. “Is it ok if I come in, I am not a member.” of course. “Let me park my car.” So we waited. Patty came back, joined us for the Eucharist, but did not receive nor come forward to receive a blessing. After Connie and the family left, I asked Patty what was wrong. “Nothing.” Ma’am, I may not have the best eyesight in the world, but the blind can see you have a heavy heart this day. “I do not want to burden you with it.” Ma’am, that is why they pay me the big bucks, to help lighten your burdens. She paused, chose her words carefully and said, “My daughter died six years ago today.” I am so sorry, how? “An asthma attack, right in my arms. And I am a nurse to boot, and I could do nothing for her. She died right in my arms, not breathing, scared. Just like that.” I am so sorry for your loss. There was a long pause.
“Aren’t you going to tell me that it was for the better or that God needed an angel?” No. “Aren’t you going to tell me that I need to get over it?” No. “Why not?” We both know that such answers are wrong. God did not take your baby because He needed an angel; God did not plan this; God certainly knows that the pain it has caused you was not for the better. “How can you say that so certainly?” Ma’am, He of all people knows what you are feeling. “What do you mean?” This baby and wonderful birth that we celebrate this day ends on Calvary. God of all people knows what it is like to lose a child. And I wonder, has He maybe lost two because of your daughter’s death? “Yes. I have been a bit upset with God for the last few years. It’s been hard to keep that faith because His churches are never open the day I need Him most. That’s why I was so excited to see cars in your lot. You were the first of 10-12 churches I tried that is actually open today.” We continued to talk for a bit. I would like to think, as she left, that just for a moment, she has begun to re-evaluate her understanding of God and His love of and grief for her loss.
We as a church are reminded of that grief felt by all parents who have lost children on this day. Some 2000 years ago, King Herod commanded that the threat to his throne be eliminated, and so all the youths in Bethlehem were killed. Can you imagine the tragedy? Can you imagine the hurt? Where was God in all that mess? How can a loving, nurturing God allow such an event to occur?
For us as Christians living today, the story is a stark reminder that there is opposition to God and His plan of salvation. In other parts of the world, there may still be martyrs, but here the opposition is no less present and no less discouraging. Who wants to be labeled as “religious” or a “Jesus freak” or a “Christian wacko”? In all times and in all places, there are people and forces so concerned with their own agenda that they act in opposition and rebellion to His message and His gift of salvation.
Yet, this story reminds us that God’s Will will not be thwarted and that He never forgets. The Holy Family flees as instructed so that the babe may grow to walk the road of the cross and resurrection. And, though history seems to have forgotten the deaths of these babies who were slaughtered for being born at the wrong time, God has caused the story to be recorded and remembered by all His people. Maybe we should not be too surprised. Like those parents of the Innocents, He knows what it is to lose a child. And, as He has with everything in our lives, He has promised to redeem even a tragedy such as this. And so, after feeding us and armoring us, He sends us back out into the world to witness His love and His faithfulness and His ability to redeem all things. Maybe, just maybe, the lectionary editors understood this as they were selecting our readings.