The Roman Empire yesterday and today

Text: Matthew 2:13-23 (the Slaughter of the Innocents)

Today’s reading from Matthew is not one that leads easily to “Merry Christmas!” Paula Simons, writing on December 23 in the Edmonton Journal about the dangers faced by children today, began by recounting Matthew’s story of what happened after the First Christmas. In her column, she noted that “[the murder of baby boys in Bethlehem] is hardly the stuff of Christmas celebration. Yet Herod’s slaughter of those innocents is essential to understanding the crux of the Christmas story.”

She continues: “Jesus was God Incarnate — not as a powerful warrior or hero-king — but as a vulnerable and mortal child, a child, like other children, at the mercy of the rages of the adults around him.”

Today as the Season of Christmas comes to an end, I hope that Matthew’s story will help us reflect on the year we have left behind and the new year we are just beginning.

Each Christmas, we commemorate Jesus’ birth with hope and joy. But according to Matthew, his birth precipitates a terrible atrocity. In Jerusalem, King Herod the Great reigns as a puppet of the Roman Empire. He is alarmed by news from magi of the East that a Star over Bethlehem heralds the birth of a new King of the Jews. Unsure of which child is supposed to be the new Messiah, Herod orders the death of all baby boys under two in Bethlehem.

Luckily for Jesus, an angel in a dream directs Joseph to flee to Egypt where he, Mary and Jesus live as refugees until another dream tells him that King Herod has died. Nevertheless, the birth of the Prince of Peace brings death to Bethlehem.

The same is true when the adult Jesus finally comes to Jerusalem. At the end of his life, Jesus confronts religious and political elites there, including Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Jesus begins his life under threat of death, and this threat is made real 30 years later.

We might feel better if we imagine that the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem didn’t happen. Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke write about the First Christmas, and their stories don’t match.

Last Sunday, we heard a different account of what happens after Jesus’ birth. According to Luke, eight days after he is born, Mary and Joseph have a naming ceremony for Jesus and then leave Bethlehem for their hometown of Nazareth.

But according to Matthew, it is Bethlehem that is Mary and Joseph’s hometown and not Nazareth. They don’t move to Nazareth until several years after Jesus’ birth when they return to Palestine from exile in Egypt.

Scholars think that Matthew includes the story of the flight to Egypt to portray Jesus as a new Moses. So perhaps the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem didn’t happen.

Unfortunately, I find it easy to believe in such an atrocity. The Roman Empire was known for its stability and relative peace. But like most empires, it was brutal. Arbitrary violence such as the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and the crucifixion of Jesus happened all the time.

By including the murders in Bethlehem in his account of the First Christmas, Matthew reminds us that Jesus was born into a brutal Empire.

Happily, this is not our context today. Or is it?

When thinking about this service, the phrase “the Roman Empire never ended” came to my mind. It comes from science fiction writer Philp K. Dick in a religiously inspired novel called “VALIS,” which he published just before his death in 1982.

Philip K. Dick remains popular today. His work lies behind the movies “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner,” including a sequel to “Blade Runner” that is scheduled to appear this year. His 1962 award-winning novel “The Man in the High Castle” has recently been adapted as a TV series for the Amazon video streaming service. It is set in an alternative United States in which Germany and Japan won World War II instead of the Allied countries.

It is not clear to me what Philip K. Dick means by the phrase “the Roman Empire never ended.” Perhaps he is referring to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, which were the chief political powers in Europe following the collapse of Rome in the Fifth Century. Perhaps he means the various European empires — Spanish, Dutch, French, British — that arose in the early modern era and which conquered most of the world between 1500 and 1900.

However, these empires no longer exist, as Canada’s history can illustrate. Canada had its beginnings as New France, a colony of the French Empire. When Britain conquered New France in 1763, Canada became a colony of Britain. Then almost 150 years ago, on July 1, 1867, Britain granted Canada Dominion status, which is an anniversary that Canadians celebrate this year.

But despite no longer being a colony of the British empire, Canada remains a settler state that is based on the conquest of First Nations by France and Britain, and one that supports a world order that has been shaped by Europe’s wars, its colonial settlements, and its genocides.

Today’s world continues to allow outrages that echo the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. For instance, since the current refugee crisis in North Africa and the Middle East started in 2011, more than 10,000 refugees have drowned in failed attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Millions of other refugees live in impoverished camps in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, and Turkey.

Canada bears some of the responsibility for these deaths and misery, I believe. Canada was one of the powers that dropped bombs on Libya in 2011 in a Western intervention that left it in chaos; and Canada is allied to states that supported authoritarian regimes in countries that now generate refugees and that have closed their borders to millions trying to find safety.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began his life as a refugee fleeing brutal terror. As followers of Jesus, this should help inspire our efforts to support refugees. In 2016, this is what many Canadians did: welcoming refugees from Syria and evacuees from the fire in Fort McMurray and engaging in campaigns against racism and bigotry. I pray that 2017 will continue such efforts.

Neither the birth of Jesus nor his death and resurrection stopped terror. Despite this, we call Jesus the Prince of Peace. The peace of Christ flows from God’s solidarity with us. Jesus show us God in human form — as an infant, as a refugee, and as a victim of state violence.

Jesus speaks truth to power and is willing to suffer the consequences of his actions. As his followers, we try to do the same. The Prince of Peace calls us to support sacred values of hospitality, non-violence, and love

Paula Simons in December wrote that “[The slaughter in Bethlehem] is a part of the nativity story that we don’t make kids’ holiday TV specials about.” Nevertheless, it is a Christmas story that calls us to act in solidarity with victims of oppression and to resist the forces of racism and nationalism.

As Canada celebrates 150 years of Confederation in 2017, may we not forget the many people who continue to flee terror. May we see in them the faces of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. Not only are refugees worthy of our compassion and aid. They bear the face of our own salvation.

Amen.

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