Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Things get darker after Christmas. At least they did in our world this year, but that’s maybe to be expected. It is a truth, universally acknowledged that all systems…no matter how dysfunctional…or toxic…seek stasis…seek stability…so if a bright spot of light flares up somewhere…the darkness always responds…Our Christian calendar reflects this…the day after the nativity…the 26th of December…when good king Wenceslaus looks out…what day is it? The feast of Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr…stoned to death for preaching the resurrection in the book of Acts. The day we celebrate light returning to the world is followed immediately by a remembrance that following that light is costly. It’s why, in years gone by, bishops would strike people on the face or shoulder right after confirming them…as a reminder that the Christian journey is not easy…is sometimes painful…but we follow the light even if it blinds us.
Two days after the feast of Stephen…when most people are hauling their trees out to the curb and returning to work, the church celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents…a memorial of all the children murdered by Herod in the verses that are conspicuously absent from our gospel today.
The light shines in the dark…and the dark always tries to respond to it……Matthew knows this…and demonstrates it…the world is dark when Jesus is born…and it gets darker almost immediately. Herod is plotting to kill Jesus…Joseph and his family flee…(none of this is in Luke, BTW)…Matthew, like all of the gospel writers, wants to show us how the light shines in the dark…and that the dark does not—cannot overcome it…(doesn’t even comprehend it…in one of my favorite translations)…and doesn’t that sound like good news that we need to hear?
Matthew shows the light shining in the dark in a way that is unique to him. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses…and he does everything he can draw these parallels. In part, he does this by retconning a whole lot of Jewish texts to make them fit this new narrative of the life, death and, resurrection of Jesus. Moses is born under threat of death. Jesus is born under threat of death. Pharaoh (remember), fearing an Israelite insurrection, decreed that all male children be thrown into the Nile. And Herod, fearing the same thing, kills all the children in and around Bethlehem.
Moses’ parents hide him for three months, but eventually build a basket to float him down the Nile safely…where he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as Egyptian royalty. Matthew has an angel visit Joseph in a dream…(not coincidentally, there’s another Joseph in the Torah—in Genesis)—who also dreams amazing dreams and is taken unwillingly into Egypt)…Matthew’s Joseph and his family become life-long refugees, fleeing first into Egypt and back after Herod’s death, and finally settling in Nazareth…not because that’s where they’re from…in Matthew they’re from Bethlehem, but they settle in Nazareth (we are told today) so that what was spoken through the prophets could be fulfilled (and BTW, no one has a clue where Matthew got this particular prophecy about the Nazorean from).
Later on Moses receives and gives the law on Mt. Sinai…Jesus goes up a mountain and gives—the sermon on the mount—Moses goes up a mountain and is transfigured by God so that his face shines so much he has to hide it…Jesus goes up a mountain and is transfigured so that his whole body is covered in radiant light…
Light is a key metaphor for us at all times, but especially during Christmas and Epiphany. On Christmas day we hear from John that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” No matter how bad things get…the darkness can never overcome or really even grasp the light. I often wonder if this is what Matthew was playing with when he wrote the story about the Magi…You see, Jewish tradition says that when Moses was born the house was filled with radiant light…So when Jesus is born Matthew has a radiant light become a star and the light guided the Magi, but somehow Herod can’t figure it out…can’t see it…how can the Magi see it, but Herod can’t? Herod comprehends it not.
On Christmas Eve, Isaiah always reminds us that we are a people who walk in darkness…a people who live in a land of deep darkness…and that continues to be true…I have no idea what is going to happen in our world over the next several weeks…but I do know that over the next several weeks our readings are going to be full of dreams…and full of darkness and light. The dreams always point toward new possibilities…open up new ways of seeing the light…new ways of spreading the light…If you participate in the Good Book club readings, and read along with the Gospel of John (which I hope you do), you’ll get even more about darkness and light…John uses those metaphors extensively…and maybe spending time with these texts will help you in making some sense of the darkness and light that continue to struggle together in our world.
In mid-February the metaphor of light gets pushed further, when Jesus reminds us that the light is not just out there…not just a star…a beacon…to be followed…but in here…a fire to be tended and stoked: “You are the light of the world,” he says,…”let your light shine before others…” (Matthew 5:14-16). I pray that by continuing to walk in the way of love that we can find and follow the light through the darkness of our world.
Because we continue to walk in darkness…to be in darkness….but the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not—cannot—overcome it…the light, the true light is in the world…it exists in all of us…Our task, our calling…is to seek the light…to be the light…to follow the path…the way of love…into the darkness to find the light…into the darkness to be the light…to feed the flame…tend it…spread the light more and more…