Archives for January 2010

The terror by the name of Herod, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

January 3, 2010

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

The gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus was born at a time that held little to no regard for human life. Emperors and kings reigned supreme, considering themselves equal to gods. They held the power to kill, and there was no one to hold them accountable. We like to think that eventually Christianity changed all that for many parts of the Western world, but eventually human nature succumbed to its pre-Christian idolatry – the divine right of kings comes to mind. Thanks be to God that this idolatry has been extinguished in almost all parts of the world.

Today, however, we are thinking again of that old terror by the name of Herod. There were several Herods in history, but two are mentioned in these passages – the one who is known as Great and his son Archelaus, who succeeded him. Herod was indeed “great” in military successes and in knowing how to placate and bribe the Romans who held power over the world they had conquered. He built cities and magnificent edifices; he married 10 wives, had many children and suffered immeasurably as a result of so many conflicting desires and machinations for his throne. He was named “King of the Jews” by Octavius, who later came to be known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. There were so many internecine killings in Herod’s family, almost all of them related to his fear of losing his throne, that it is not doubtful that he was also a man capable of ordering the slaughter of innocent children. He may have been called King of the Jews, but Herod was not burdened by any of the religious commandments of the Jewish God. He was much more like a Roman emperor than a Jewish king in the tradition of David. And the Jews never quite accepted him as one of their own, since he was an Idumean.

It is true that there is no historical corroboration of the flight to Egypt, but that does not keep the Christians of Egypt, the Copts, from being utterly convinced of its truth, specifying numerous places as giving shelter to the holy family and being convinced of their length of stay in the country. We must remember that the evangelists did not have the same concept of history that we have today. Do these stories matter? Of course they do.

Look at the history of the Herods and compare them to the stories of Jesus – the child born to a poor young mother who said yes to God; the child protected by a good man named Joseph who obeyed the words of the messengers of God. Who made a difference in subsequent history and in the hearts of human beings? Who is remembered with love and devotion? Who is worshiped and obeyed? And whose life and death changed the world? Think about Herod and then think about Jesus of Nazareth. Whose kingdom do you prefer?

One bribes the Romans with money taken from the taxes of the poor people of Judea in order to curry favor with the conquerors and hold on to his throne. The other urges his followers to give what they have to the poor while he himself lives as one who has nowhere to lay his head.

Herod uses violence that brings forth more violence; Jesus resists violence by offering peace and forgiveness.

Herod builds palaces and temples to his own glory while Jesus builds the kingdom of God by turning the values of power and wealth upside down.

One lives by injustice, the other by justice.

Herod orders death while Jesus offers life.

Who is the one we long to emulate?

The story of the flight to Egypt, of a poor couple and an infant escaping to another land, has given hope to millions of refugees the world over. It is possible that thousands of refugees have been given asylum and been resettled by churches because of the memory of the One who started his life as a refugee.

Historians, both Christian and secular, try to denigrate these stories of the infancy and childhood of Jesus as written by Matthew and Luke by calling them “legends.” The first answer to this is that the evangelists were not writing history but were telling a story of faith. The second answer is a kind a comparison that may help us put things in perspective. In 31 B.C., a great battle took place at Actium, a Greek port city. Antony and Cleopatra, great and famous personages of their time, were defeated soundly by Octavius, who became the all-powerful Roman emperor, Augustus. This is documented in history. Nearly three decades later a son was born to Mary in Nazareth, an obscure village in Galilee. In the eyes of the contemporary world, Octavius/Augustus was all-important, a self-proclaimed son of god. Yet none of his acts proved to be godly.

In the eyes of the same world, Jesus was unknown and ignored; yet his followers came to be convinced that he, indeed, was God’s Son. His life and death testified to the love, justice, and mercy of God.

On this day we remember only Jesus of Nazareth with gratitude and praise. Thanks be to God.
— Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of “Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross” and other books of biblical storytelling.

Sharing the name ‘Christian’, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2010

January 1, 2010

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

Abraham means “Ancestor of many.”

Moses means “to draw out.”

Israel means either “he struggles with God” or “God struggles.”

So, if our etymological skills are keen enough, at least from an Old Testament point of view, we can figure out the purpose of a particular patriarch or matriarch simply by reading his or her name. Of course, Abraham did indeed become the father of many. Moses, after some trials and tribulations, did draw the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of promise. And Israel, Jacob’s other name, given to him as he wrestled with God at Peniel, was the moniker that would be indicative of all of his descendants’ relationship with God for generations upon generations.

So with all of this said, it is safe to say names mean much more than simply that by which one is called. Names mean not only who you are, but often what you do. Our identities have as much to do with what we do as they have to do with what we are called. Smith, Cartwright, Brewer, or Cooper – all fine last names – have their roots in professions. Long ago, individuals who worked at these professions came to be so closely associated with them that what they did defined who they were – literally.

Identity means character, uniqueness, and individuality. And in our society, much of who we are and how we are perceived hasn’t changed all that much from antiquity. Upon meeting someone for the first time we inevitably ask and answer the all-important “So, what do you do?” It is a means by which we convey to others our identity. In short, where we spend the majority of our time and energy defines who we are as human beings. Who knows? Someday before too long someone may have the last name of Processor or Byte.

If biblical names are so important in describing what purposes these august individuals served, then the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus certainly has a place in the Church’s calendar. We heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus was given “the name above all names.” And Jesus’ name means, “He saves.” It is, of course, a rendition of the Hebrew name Joshua. And if names impart identity, then Jesus’ identity is living into the fullness of his name – animating it and turning a concept like salvation into a living, breathing human being.

Mary and Joseph knew none of this as they stood with him all wrapped in swaddling clothes at the Temple, obediently presenting their first-born child for the rite of circumcision. They didn’t know what would happen thirty-some-odd years later. They had no way of knowing how their son, born in such obscurity, would live into his name. How he would be the one upon whose shoulders all hopes had been placed for millennia. All they knew was what the angel Gabriel told them, that the child would be called Jesus.

Christology is the study of Jesus Christ. And although there are vastly different approaches to Christology, most scholars agree that to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” we must first answer a foundational question: “What does Jesus do?”

Identity and purpose take on even more complex meanings when we delve into the second person of the Trinity. And as scripture tells us, it is precisely because of Jesus that God is revealed in God’s fullest. The uniqueness of the en-fleshment of God is to reveal God’s identity in a way never before seen prior to the incarnation.

The epistle to the Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” is to engage the divine on a human, and therefore unique, level. To know Jesus’ name is to know something about God. And the thing we discover is that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Through Jesus, God brought to fulfillment God’s promises of atonement or “at-one-ment” of humanity with God’s self. Through Jesus, God pioneered a pathway to the very gates of heaven that heretofore had been unassailable by humankind.

So celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is about so much more than a ritual observed in a temple 2,000 years ago by a devout Jewish family. For we realize that in Jesus, we live vicariously through his victory over sin and death. It is not just a belief system. It is not just a way of life. It is a very change in our identities.

It all begins with a simple but powerful statement. You remember: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked and Christ’s own forever.”

With that, we are given the grace to share in Jesus Christ’s victory. We are given the grace of a whole new life. We are given the grace to be called children of God, who all share the same name: Christian.
— The Rev. Scott Baker is rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Va.