The Nightmare After Christmas

Ruling Elder Rosangela Berbert, January 1, 2017, Matthew 2:1-23


Here we are. The first of the year. After the rush of Halloween, thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s parties are over and it is time to begin to focus on the next of the 7 major holidays Americans celebrate with so much glee!

I am sure that many of us have watched plenty holiday movies since late October!

I have my own favorites and as I was reviewing my list the other day I came across two tales that many of you may be familiar with.

 The nightmare before Christmas – a Halloween movie inspired by a poem by Tim Burton - that make us realize how Halloween and Christmas collide in the stores in  October.

And How the Grinch stole Christmas, a Dr. Seuss classic!

I found interesting how these two titles bring together such conflicting ideas: Christmas and something else that inspires fear.

That conflict of ideas became even more complicated to me when I heard the pastor of my daughter’s church in Madison preach based on the following passage on Christmas Eve:

This is the part when the angels appear to the shepherd to announce Jesus’ birth:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger…

 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

 Do not be afraid… News that will cause Great Joy…

 How this core message of Christmas could in any possible way make any sense if compared to the two holiday movies I had been thinking about?

In both stories, the main characters try to resolve their complicated feelings towards the Christmas holiday.

In the first, he character Jack Skellington, a creature with hollowed eyes, bored with his own existence, tries to steal Christmas in an attempt to find new purpose for his life (or death…) – he coveted all the jolly feelings that come with the winter holiday, feelings that do not quite exist in Halloween Town (a place where dead, decay, an fear rein).

In the other, the Green grumpy creature imagined by Dr. Seuss steals all things typical of Christmas expecting that nobody would be merry – -he couldn’t tolerate their joy because he did not experience any in his own heart  - he connected that joy to the stuff of the holiday.

But in both tales, the anti-heroes failed their quest to ‘take over’ Christmas in their own way and at the end they learn that there is much more to Christmas than what they could initially “see.”

These two stories show creatures that for their own peculiar reasons did not grasp the true meaning of Christmas – they did not get the angel’s message. But as I read the passages for today, the first Sunday after Christmas, I found it a bit easier to trace some similarity between the two secular and very popular stories to the one we find in today’s Gospel readings.

Like the Grinch in Who Ville and Jack Skellington in Halloween Town, we find in Bethlehem a prominent figure that plays the key role as an antagonist to Christmas.

Let’s remember who Herod was:

The King of the Jews was a mad man, ambitious and self-centered, some believe he suffered from depression and paranoia, and there are those who believe he killed himself as the final result of his mental illness.

Herod could not tolerate the idea that anyone could take his place – even as he was the king of a nation that was under Roman ruling (economically and politically).

While the “little people,” the peasants of Bethlehem (like the shepherds in the field, and Ana and Simeon in the temple) celebrated the birth of Jesus as the promised messiah, rejoicing with the news brought to them by no less than a whole host of angels, and experiencing the joy of being in the presence of the promised Savior, Herod lived a lavish live in one of the most extravagant palaces in ancient history (the Herodium).  Just one of its four largest columns sat at a base measuring over 50 feet in diameter!

Herod was a man who believed nobody would be bigger than him; no one would threaten his power. Historians have reported the he was responsible for the death of his own sons – an attempt to prevent them from taking over the kingdom.

What a delirious man… he posed as Herod the Great, and yet he was only as great as the Romans would allow it since his kingdom was at the time under Roman control.

So, while the news that the Messiah had been born in a humble setting in Bethlehem, spread great joy to the shepherds and many people of Bethlehem and the whole Judea, the same news brought great distress to Herod the Great.

It is uncertain how long it took the wise men from the east to arrive to Herod’s doors. Most likely they did not arrive until many days after the birth. The wise men were not called to come to the manger by the angels in the heavens, they were alerted by a different sign in the sky. As astrologers, they kept their eyes on the stars for signs that could help them foresee information about human affairs and terrestrial events. These gentile men interpreted the sign of the bright star in the West sky as an indication that a new king had been born in Judea – they must have been familiar with many of the prophecies about the Messiah.

Naturally, as they were inquiring about the whereabouts of the baby king, they came to Herod’s palace, much to Herod’s great surprise and deep distress. The text says that the whole Jerusalem, which was just about 15 miles from Bethlehem, was distraught along with the king. Wouldn’t you be also if you knew how paranoid your ruler was? Wouldn’t you begin to wonder and even fear what Herod the Great could do to deal with that new threat to his throne? A man who had ensured that not even his own blood lineage got in his way was bound to go to any extreme to keep the crown to himself.

And that’s when the similarity between Herod, Jack Skellington and the Grinch takes some shape  - when the nightmare after Christmas starts.

Until we get to that part of the Christmas story,

            all is calm,

                        all is bright….

We know from heart, even if we were not brought up in Sunday school classes, that the magi stopped at Herod’s palace before they found Mary, Joseph and Jesus. We know they brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and that those gifts have very special meanings, as they reveal that Jesus came for fulfill the promises to be the supreme Sacrifice for humanity’s salvation.  And somehow we seem to just skip over the part of the story that is really nightmarish….

While we keep our focus on the solemn scene of those wise men, (and only God really knows how many of them where there at that time), bowing before a baby in a humble home somewhere in the Bethlehem area, imagining that the bright start continued to shine somewhere up in the sky as a beacon of hope, it is easy to forget that several miles away there was a very different scene playing out. One that is so different from what we see in Christmas cards, children’s books movies, and everywhere…

Just try to imagine a scene that could be better matched by Dr. Seuss’s imagination – in the hills of Who Ville, where a despicable green creature who maybe had a heart a few sizes two small lived…  or a scene that would fit well in a scary Tim Burton’s movie…

Imagine watching the king, deeply distraught, pacing around the room before terrified servants, with a heart full of anger that was the result of festering fear and self-interest.

Different than the little people of Judea, who learned to trust God, to have hope in God and to expect the coming of the promised Messiah who would give them a life that was infinitely better than anything they could ever achieve on their own. Different than the shepherds, who received the most amazing news directly from the mouths of angels who prepared them to not be afraid but to rejoice. Different than Mary and Joseph, who also received the news of Jesus’ birth and mission directly from divine messengers. And different than the magi, who kept their eyes in the skies for signs of God’s actions in the physical world -- Herod could only see his own needs and desires.  Herod the Great, recognized as a mighty King, had no room in his heart for God’s message that Christmas…

Like the Grinch, or like Jack Skellington, he tried to take the matter on his on hands to take control of that new threat to what he believed… But very unlike the two fictional characters that at the end earn the sympathy of their audience, Herod did something that only inspired more fear in his people…

Since he could not learn how to find the baby Jesus, Herod became the author of one of the saddest episodes in the history of the Chosen People. Paralleling what happened to the Hebrews at the time when Moses was a baby, the king ordered that all boys younger than two be killed.

We know that Jesus was preserved because God told Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt. A dream like that to a parent is more like a nightmare!

Not that learning that his fiancé was pregnant of the Holy Spirit earlier on was any easier…

-         First picture   (Rest on the Flight into Egypt )

Well, this is a typical sample of ‘holy Art’. Still very much Christmas card-like…

Let’s try this other one…

            -  Second picture (The slaughter of the innocents)

And there you have it… the all together nightmarish side of the Christmas story that we so easily skip over because…who wants to think about a massacre during a time when the whole humanity should be focusing on “peace on earth” and “joy to the world?” Who willingly would switch attention from the bright reds of poinsettias, gift ribbons, and Rudolph’s nose to the bright red of the blood of the children who were sacrificed under the wrath of Herod while Mary and Joseph sought refuge in Egypt?

So different depictions, and yet both point at the reality that the nightmares after the first Christmas – the nightmares that Joseph and Mary, and all the families who lost their babies at that time – serve to remind us that Christmas is way more than what meets our contemporary eyes…

There’s way more to Christmas than what the Grinch found after the Whos continued to celebrate even without their ‘Christmassy stuff,’ and that the true meaning of Christmas goes way beyond the fleeting excitement that seduced Jack Skellington.

The true meaning of Christmas is that Jesus was born to give us a chance to a new life. One that we cannot make for ourselves out of our own effort, out of our own good will, good intentions, and good deeds. A life that brings more fulfillment than what Herod could ever achieve in spite of all his power and riches. That is a live that is given to us through Jesus’ own sacrifice, making himself flesh, being humbly born in a stable, having to flee to a foreign land to preserve his life until the time when he was to suffer death on the cross, in our place.

As we go on as Christians celebrating Christmas a few more days even if all the stores are already changing the decorations to the next holiday, and we begin to select a new list of holiday movies, lets not forget the true reason for the Christmas season: that the baby Jesus was born humbly, and lived a life full of human sufferings until he offered himself in sacrifice on the cross for us so that we can be free of fear of the eternal death – and that fear, my friends, is what I consider to be the ultimatum nightmare after Christmas…