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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Legends have often provided the names, colors and description of our Christmas characters. In St. Matthew’s gospel, you will find no mention of the number of wise men. We merely read that three gifts were offered to the Christ Child, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Only legend has informed us that there were three. Tradition also states that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar, and that one of them was black. The Holy Family’s journey into Egypt has given us another name as well, a thief named Dismas. According to the legend, when Joseph and Mary were fleeing to Egypt ahead of King Herod’s soldiers, they were confronted by a den of robbers. One of the robber chieftains wished to murder the Holy Family at once, and to steal the little store of goods that they were hiding… presumably the gold, frankincense and myrrh that they had had been given by the three kings. But something about the baby Jesus went straight to the heart of the young thief named Dismas. He refused to allow any harm to come to Jesus or his mother or father. He looked at the tiny child wrapped warmly in blankets, and held lovingly in Mary’s arms and said, “O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me, and forget not this hour.” So, the legend states, that Jesus met the thief again on the cross at Calvary, and Dismas was the penitent thief on the cross who was crucified beside Jesus. At the hour of death, Dismas received the forgiveness and mercy that his soul was seeking. His words echo the ancient legend, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
A second legend is much more innocent and child- like. Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus were on their way to Egypt. King Herod had already discovered that the Magi from the East had returned to their country by another way. The king was immediately enraged, and so he ordered his soldiers to hasten unto Bethlehem and the surrounding territory and to kill all the children two years and under. As the evening came, the Holy Family was weary and they sought refuge in a cave. It was very cold, so cold that the ground was white with hoar frost. A little spider saw the infant Jesus, and he wished so much that he could so something to keep him warm in the cold night. He decided to do the only thing that he could do. He spun a web across the entrance of the cave to make, as it were, a curtain there.
Along the path came a detachment of Herod’s soldiers seeking to kill and carry out Herod’s blood thirsty order. When they came to the cave, they were about to burst in to search it, but their captain noticed the spider’s web, covered with the frost and stretched across the entrance to the cave. “Look,” he said, “At the spider’s web there. It is quite unbroken, and there cannot possibly be anyone in the cave, for they would have torn the web.” So the soldiers passed on and left the Holy Family in peace. And the legend states, that to this day, this is why we put tinsel upon our Christmas trees, to remind us of the spider’s web covered with frost that protected our Savior. It also reminds us that no gift offered to the Lord, is too small or forgotten.
Hopefully, these whimsical legends have now provided a little distance for you to reflect on this morning’s tragic gospel story. After all, many people would prefer a more romantic and idealistic image of Christmas. They have a tendency to dwell on the sentimental aspects of Christmas as an escape from the harsh, cold realities of life in this world. And yet, as we are reminded in this morning’s gospel, the Holy Family itself was not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long. The flutter of angels’ wings in Joseph’s dreams warned of an evil tyrant on the loose going door-to-door looking for the young heirs to his throne to kill. On the one hand, there’s the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes…but on the other hand, we read that the ancient Matriarch Rachel, close by, was weeping for her children.
The truth of the matter is that the powers of evil that were once actively at work in Bethlehem two thousand years ago when Jesus was born, are still active today. Yes, even at Christmas, in our own day and age, there are countless untold stories of children around the world who are neglected and forgotten and whose families must flee as refugees to a safe country. This morning’s gospel actually comes as a sobering reminder that we have been called not only to remember the poor and innocent struggling children of the world, but we have been called to seek justice for the weak and powerless, just as we would remember and honor the Christ-Child.
Now you may be wondering: So Pastor Haug, how can there be any real Christmas hope in this tragic story? After all, the accounts of human brutality and hatred seem so contrary to the joy of this festive season. And it’s true, in the midst of the flurry of the Christmas bustle, the message of the gospel could easily be overlooked. But my friends, there is a harsh reality to the story of our Savior’s sojourn into Egypt that cannot be dismissed and must be told. This biblical world of pain, of a tyrant’s bent on destroying the innocent and sending away the poor as refugees to foreign lands is the very world our Lord came to redeem. Jesus came to bring great joy to this broken world. And that is good news for us all- and perhaps especially for you- If joy has been illusive for you this holiday season, if instead pain and sorrow have been a part of your Christmas sojourn. This message is for you for you are in good company- for you are walking in good company with Mary and Joseph and Jesus…and God.
That is what this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew teaches us. You see, wherever you find yourself, you are never off of God’s map. It’s true, without God,“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.” But let me tell you the good news that I see in this story. The story reminds us that “With God” even in the land of the lost, even in far away Egypt, even in this “new world,” nothing is new to God. For in Jesus Christ, God has been there before. God can always help you change your plans, and if necessary, God can give you and empower you with a new one. The Christmas gospel, you see, is not simply the story of our Savior resting peacefully in a manger. It is also the story of a gracious God who so loved his creation that he was willing to place his only son in harm’s way, so that you and I should be saved. And that, is the true joy and wonder and love of Christmas.
But how do these stories and this gospel continue to inspire us, as in the generations past? Isn’t that what you and I longing for in this season of Christmas? You are longing for a word and sign of hope. After all, on Christmas in Gospel of Saint Luke, we read that the shepherds having seen the child returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. And next Sunday on Epiphany, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we will read that the wise men, knelt down before Jesus and paid him homage, and they returned home by another road. So what can we expect today? Shouldn’t you and I be able to discover a new way of living in this different Christmas story? The answer is yes, my friends.
To close, let me offer three suggestions to inspire and strengthen your faith at this Christmastide. Perhaps you can use these as resolutions for the New Year as well.
First of all, seek ways to help the poor, the refugees from distant shores, victims of war, and especially oppressed children. It has been written, if you want to live a meaningful life, find a place where it meets face to face with the world’s suffering. Our Lord Jesus has identified himself most intimately with these, the disenfranchised. He once counted himself among the world’s misbegotten. Like the penitent thief, Dismas, God will show mercy and favor to those who have shown mercy. And he will remember you when he comes into his kingdom.
Second, do not avoid suffering even in the midst of the joyous season of Christmas. Where there is a family member dying, go to them. Where a friend is sick, be near to them. Where a child is struggling, assist them… even if it causes you discomfort and anxiety. This morning’s Letter to the Hebrews has captured a divine truth. “It was fitting that God in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Remember my friends, the wooden cross is just as much of the Christmas story as is the wooden manger.
And finally, let your acts of charity be as nimble and as delicate as the Spider’s Web. In God’s hands your tiny gestures will be made into silver strands. In God’s hands your fervent activity will be made holy unto God. In God’s hands your work of love will offer protection for even the most helpless and innocent child. It is that love which first came down to you at Christmas, now let it change you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.