Not quite everything in the traditional Christmas story in the gospels is pleasant and enjoyable, though we know well the parts that are. There’s Luke’s familiar and beloved version, with the singing angels and watchful shepherds, Joseph and Mary in search of shelter, and the birth of Jesus in the manger. Matthew (which lacks these scenes) adds the Magi who come to worship the infant Jesus, and Joseph’s dream in which he is told to marry an already-pregnant Mary. Each Christmas we are moved by the beauty and mystery of this story, when, on one climactic “silent night,” all was calm, and all was bright.
But Matthew does not allow us to remain enchanted around a manger anesthetized from the harsh realities of the world. He adds a jarring sequel, which we will consider in our worship on Sunday, Jan. 11—the holy family’s flight to Egypt to escape the massacre of infant children in Bethlehem by a frightened and paranoid King Herod (2:13-23). No sooner have we watched the Magi bow down before the king of the universe than Matthew rudely pulls us back into the real world, where powerful rulers murder innocent babies and in which the very son of God becomes a refugee.
It is understandable why we usually omit this last chapter of the Christmas story. It is a gruesome finale that shatters the sweetness and serenity of the manger scene. It spoils an otherwise beautiful account of Jesus’s birth. No wonder there are no Roman soldiers in our nativity sets.
But we need to deal with Matthew’s brutal ending to our beloved story, because it raises serious and disturbing questions: Why do the powers that be react so violently to the news of Jesus’s coming into the world? Why does God allow innocent babies to die? Does God play favorites, as God seems to do by saving only Jesus’s family? And, what does it mean that Jesus begins his life as a refugee?
Maybe that is the gospel—the good news—of this otherwise unpleasant ending. Because he starts his life as a refugee child, Jesus knows what it is like to live in a world of violence and fear and death and refugees. He fully shares the painful and precarious life that many in this world live today. And through Jesus, God also enters fully into our pain and suffering. Jesus, the refugee child, shows how completely he is “Emmanuel, God with us,” especially in those times when the night is not silent, and when all is not calm, and all is not bright.