In her excellent novel, Christ the Lord: Out f Egypt, author Anne Rice (yes, she of the “Vampire Chronicles” fame!) explores the childhood of Jesus from about the age of 7 to the age of 12. Rice has done her homework; she weaves her story around both the meager information we have in Holy Scripture as well as other, extra-biblical accounts, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of James, which carry much more narrative about the Child Jesus than appears in Scripture. It sometimes comes as a surprise to people to discover that the typical Nativity scene (such as the one we see before us), with the Holy Family surrounded by angels and shepherds, and with wise men approaching from afar is not in the Bible! (The arrival of the wise men is not scheduled until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, although, since this is the final Sunday of Christmas, we have urged them on to gallop to an early arrival today!) Over the years, in an effort to tell and re-tell the remarkable story of the Birth of Christ, the Church has pulled together two biblical accounts of his infancy: angels and shepherds from the Gospel of Luke and the star and wise men from the Gospel of Matthew. That makes a nice tableau, and, happily, has provided parts for lots of players in children’s Christmas pageants, but the Gospel of John makes no mention of the birth of Christ, nor does the Gospel of Mark, who begins his account of “the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God” with Jesus at about the age of 30 being baptized in the River Jordan (stay tuned for next Sunday’s celebration). In Rice’s novel, the pre-teen Jesus, living in exile in Alexandria, Egypt, and unaware of his divine side of his nature – which is being kept a secret by most of his family – knows only from rumors that something unusual happened back in Bethlehem, from which his family fled after his birth. He keeps asking: “what happened in Bethlehem?”
That brings us to the lessons for today. Since only one Gospel reading is printed in your bulletin (and only that one was read), you should be aware that the lectionary compilers have provided three options for the Gospel reading today! In addition to the passage read today from Matthew about the Flight into Egypt (2:13-15; 19-23), there is also another passage from Matthew (2:1-12) telling the well-known story of those “wise men from the East,” who, guided by a star, brought gifts to the new-born Messiah, the King of the Jews. In spite of the carol which we so love to sing, there may have been more than three kings and perhaps many more gifts, but Matthew tells us only of three symbolic gifts: gold, to acknowledge Jesus as King; frankincense, to acknowledge him as divine (the smoke of the incense rises to heaven as do the prayers of the faithful); and myrrh, an ointment used in the ancient world for embalming, to acknowledge that Jesus was not only divine but also human and, therefore, mortal. One day he would die. The third option for the preacher is from the Gospel of Luke (2:41-52) – the only one who tells it -and recounts the story of the 12-year old Jesus who, (by this time a resident of Nazareth) at the end of his family’s annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, stayed behind in the Temple to listen to and ask questions of the teachers. As teenagers sometimes do, he did this unbeknownst to his parents, giving them a great deal of concern and frustration. When they demanded to know “why have you treated us like this?” Luke tells us he answered innocently, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Then he meekly goes home with them to Nazareth. Parents who have somehow survived their children’s teenage years will all resonate to this story!
Now, all of this is re-told in an imaginative and wholly plausible way by Ms. Rice. During the course of her story, Jesus begins gradually to discern more and more about his unique parentage and the situation surrounding his birth. By the end of the book, he has moved slowly from “What happened in Bethlehem?” to the final phrase, spoken confidently in prayer to his heavenly Father, “Father, I am your child.”
From this point on, the Bible tells us nothing – not one bit - of the life of Jesus of Nazareth until, at the age of 30 or so, he comes to John the Baptist to receive John’s ministry.
The other readings of this day also speak of parents and children. The passage from the Prophet Jeremiah (31:7-14) sings the praises of the Lord who gathers from exile in “the farthest parts of the earth” the people of God and brings them back to their homeland of Zion. “I have become a father to Israel,” says God in the words of Jeremiah, “and Ephraim is my first-born.” Centuries later, in his Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”
So, then, we understand something of “what happened in Bethlehem” to be something more than a sweet story of the Holy Family serenaded by angels and adored by both shepherds (the lowest of the low) and kings (the highest of the high). We begin to understand that what happened in Bethlehem was nothing less than God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, entering human history through the flesh of a human mother, just as we do, and being born as we are in the person of a vulnerable and dependent infant who would become the Savior of the world. As an adult, he would suffer and die - as do we – and through his marvelous resurrection, offer mercy and life to all, so that, through sharing his flesh and blood, we might share with him forgiveness and life beyond the grave.
What happened in Bethlehem was not so much about angels and shepherds and farm animals and kings as it was about God and the love of God which knows no bounds for the Beloved. It was about new birth offered through Christ to all.
Because through Jesus Christ we are adopted and become children of God, so that each of us, too, might say with confidence to God our heavenly Father, “Father, I am your child.”