Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord though the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
After the magi had spent time with the baby Jesus, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they left. The new parents were now alone with their relatively unexplained child, forced to fend for themselves with this baby Messiah. Christmas had come and gone in that tiny village of Bethlehem and life after Christmas was starting to settle in.
One night an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and called him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, because Herod was after the child. And so, following the commands of the Lord yet again, Joseph took his family and went to the land that God had called him to travel to. There he waited until Herod died.
The wise men, on their way to meet and greet the baby Jesus had shared the news of this newborn king with Herod, who asked to learn of his location and identity after they found him. Because of a dream telling them not to return, they withheld the information regarding the baby Messiah to which Herod was infuriated. He gathered together hordes of soldiers and commanded them to travel to Bethlehem in order to kill any child under the age of two in and around the village.
Later, after the death of Herod, Joseph brought his family back to the land that had been promised to his ancestors, but traveled to the area of Galilee and settled in Nazareth, which would become the boyhood home of Jesus.
When I was 17 years old, I spent a lot of time at my home church. If I wasn’t practicing drums with the worship band, then I was at a boy scout meeting, or helping with youth group, or immersed in a bible study, or running the sound system for worship services, funerals, and weddings. Every Christmas Eve the church would hold multiple services and I would sign up for multiple shifts in order to have the sound system function properly for one of the highest attended services of the year. When I was 17 I was blessed, and I mean that ironically, to run the system for the 3pm and the 11pm services.
The 3 o’clock service went as well as could have been expected. It was the family friendly service with a cacophony of children all running around and climbing over their pews while their parents attempted to listen to the sermon and not lose their place while singing the hymns. The sermon was spot on about the depth of Christmas and the graceful coming of God into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.
The 11 o’clock service was the complete opposite.
Instead of families with young children, the sanctuary was filled with older adults sitting scattered throughout the dozens of pews. Instead of children climbing over pews and dropping pencils everywhere, there was a profound silence within the worshipping body; a completely different sense of reverence. The sermon was the same, though it felt a little dull with the patterns of repetition throughout the afternoon and evening, however, you could feel a sense of wonder and awe flowing throughout the people that night, as they gathered together to celebrate God’s coming into the world.
By the time I was able to leave, it was already past midnight and I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was drive home, get in my bed, wake up, and open presents. As I drove back to my house I made my way down the George Washington Parkway with the Potomac River on my right thankful for the end of another Christmas Eve.
Right after I turned off the parkway to head up my street I saw flashing red and blue lights underneath the bridge that went over the road I had just drove on. I’m not sure why, (maybe it was the eagle scout in me) but I immediately pulled my car over and ran down to the road to see if I could help.
The details of what I saw there on the road that night will stay with me for the rest of my life, and there were things that I should never describe from the pulpit. Suffice it to say that, before I arrived, a terribly sad man had been standing on the edge of the bridge for sometime. The drop was nothing to speak of, maybe 13 feet, so he just kept standing there, waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming toward the bridge, and when he felt that it was just the right moment, he jumped.
The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from an 11 o’clock mass from one of the Catholic churches in Old Town Alexandria, a family excited for the prospect of heading home after a wonderful service to get the milk and cookies ready for santa, a family ready to go to bed in order to wake up for Christmas morning, a family whose lives would be forever changed.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but one of the police officers made his way over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Go home, and try to forget ever seeing this.”
Life after Christmas can be one of the best, and one of the worst, times of the year. Its that strange time that often never meets our expectations. After weeks of preparation, hanging all the lights, decorating the house, wrapping all the presents, planning the meals, sending all the Christmas cards, Christmas comes and goes. We wake up and before we know it the holiday has arrived and departed. And for all the prep that we do, our expectations can almost never be met perfectly. We never receive all the gifts we want, we never have the perfect interaction with our family without fights and arguments, we never get to experience God and faith exactly the way we expect and hope for.
Life after Christmas can be a real shock if we’re not ready for it. We build up this wonderful holiday moment through the songs on the radio, through the worship services of Advent, and even with the sales promotions at all of our favorite stores.
Its no wonder therefore why there are more incidents of hospitalizations for depression, and attempts at suicide during the next few weeks, than any other time during the year. For all the joy that we muster together on Christmas Eve, life after Christmas can hit hard and low.
Life after Christmas for Jesus was filled with trial and tribulation as well. In the wake of his birth in one of the most inhospitable of places, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to flee to Egypt in order to avoid the wrath of Herod. It is curious that we receive little detail regarding Herod’s desire to kill all of the children in Bethlehem, only that he was infuriated by the deception of the wise men. It would seem that Herod feared for the loss of his position of power and control and he then decided to eradicate any remnant of this supposed “Messiah king” that could usurp his power.
If we only read this story on the surface, hearing about the new family’s retreat to Egypt, their patient waiting for Herod’s death, and their inevitable return, then we will be stuck with the devastating imagery of Rachel weeping for the children, the imagery of Herod killing innocents babies in Jerusalem, and a family’s terrifying experience of fear and isolation. But the story contains so much more.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus comes to be understood as the new Moses. He will deliver a sermon on the mount with his commands for the ways we are to live our lives, just as Moses stood on the mountaintop to deliver the ten commandments to the wandering Hebrews. It is important for Jesus to be understood through a Mosaic lens because he will also deliver the people out of slavery – not slavery in Egypt to foreign pharaohs, but out of slavery to sin and death.
Here, in this story, we get the beginnings of Jesus’ connections with Moses.
During the time of Moses’ birth, the Pharaoh in Egypt had all of the young males murdered in order to maintain the reigns over the Hebrew slaves. It was during this child massacre that Moses was saved by his mother. In a similar way, Jesus was saved from Herod’s massacre of the children because of the warning from God. Just as Moses would come to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, Jesus would eventually return to Galilee from Egypt in order to begin his ministry.
I wonder what it must have felt like for Mary and Joseph to raise that baby under such circumstances; to be told to leave all that was familiar, to enter a foreign land, because a ruler wanted to see your baby murdered. I wonder what could’ve sustained them through the days, weeks, months, and years of unknowing, the periods of fear and isolation.
I wonder what it must still feel like for that family that hit the man on their way home from church. What kind of emotional roller coaster does Christmas bring for them each year? What sustains them through that time of year when joy is so intertwined with fear?
Christmas, for us, is the reflection of that great event where God came to be with us. That time of year where we attempt to set aside all of our disappointments from the past, and look forward to that new beginning that we can hopefully emulate in our own lives.
Why is life after Christmas less ecstatic than the weeks leading up to it? Why do we let ourselves fall into states of sadness and the blues when we were just singing Joy to the World, and Angels We Have Heard On High? What is it about this time that makes it so much harder to get out of bed every morning, and get back into the routines of life?
Life after Christmas is almost never easy; not for us now, not for that family driving home, and it certainly wasn’t easy for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. As we continue to step forward into this uncertain time let us not hold fast to the decorations, and the pomp and circumstance, and the presents, and the meals, and all the other elements that make Christmas what it appears to be, but instead let us hold fast to the hymns we sang together as a church, let us hold fast to the fact that Christ is the light of the world that shines in the darkness, let us hold fast to the faith that we have in Jesus Christ as the Lord of all.
When you really get down to it, Christmas isn’t just a day, or even a time of year that we celebrate. As a faithful community, Christmas happens every single time we gather together. Every worship service, every bible study, every quilt for a cause, every Men’s club meeting, every UMW gathering, every youth activity, every thing we do reimagines the Christmas message for us. To be the church, to be the body of Christ for the world, means that we are continuously celebrating the fact that the greatest thing that ever came to be, came to be with us.
The fact that God humbled himself to be like us, for us, and with us, surmounts everything else in the world. For all the disappointments that we might face, for all of the ways we have fallen short of God’s glory, nothing will ever compare to the love of God in Jesus Christ manifested in a man’s life who changed the world.
It is okay to feel hurt and sad during life after Christmas. It is okay to feel the emotional tide that comes and goes while we rest in the awkward time after celebration. But we must never forget that though death, and suffering, and fear are real, they do not have the final word. God’s glory and grace surpasses all things. God’s love for you is eternal, it extends beyond all things, and is present in the ways that we love one another. Jesus, our Moses, came to deliver us from the bonds of the world, to help transform the way we live, and to share with us life eternal.
And so, If we take seriously the faith that we confess in Christ, then life after Christmas should really be the most wonderful time of the year.