Holy Innocents/Holy Family/Epiphany C ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger
Note to Preachers:
The following exegetical discussion and homily may help you reflect upon and preach the extended narrative for the feasts related to the birth of the Messiah.
The material in Matthew 2:1-23 constitutes one extended narrative. Raymond Brown concurs with this assessment and discerns two acts within the narrative. “The first act (vss. 1-12) is dominated by the magi from the East and their positive response to the revelation of the birth of the King of the Jews.” Brown adds that “The evil Herod lurks in the background with his coterie of chief priests and scribes; but his malevolent plan does not come to light until the second act (vss. 13-23), when the magi are off the scene. There we see that his reaction to the birth of the King of the Jews is to seek to kill the child, an attempt that is foiled by God’s guidance of Joseph through the angel.” (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, 1979, p. 179.) This Matthean infancy narrative historically evoked three distinct occasions within the liturgical year:
1. The entirety of act one (2:1-12) at the Feast of the Epiphany, an early Feast of the Eastern Church on January 6 th . It originally incorporated several motifs embodying the manifestation of Christ to the world including Birth, Magi, Baptism of the Lord, and Cana.
2. The Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 which focuses on act 2 of the Matthean narrative with particular attention to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod. Holy Innocents, along with the Feasts of St. Stephen (12/26) and St. John (12/27) were all in place in the Western Church’s Sanctoral Calendar before Christmas was first celebrated in Rome in 336. The three became incorporated into the Incarnational cycle as the “Comites Christi” (Companions of Christ).
3. The Feast of Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on a Sunday between December 25 and January 1. If no Sunday occurs between these dates, this feast is celebrated on December 30 with only one reading before the Gospel. The Gospel Lesson for this Feast incorporates most of the act two material: Matt. 2:13-15, 19-23.
This homily, then, assembles a series of moves in sequence from the entirety of the Matthean birth narrative. It is, therefore, longer than the typical liturgical homily and covers material found in all three of the liturgical Feasts listed above. Think of this extended homily, then, as a resource offering “moves” to be incorporated within a homily for each of the Feasts. For example, the focus of the first move on the revelation of God expressed within the creation along with the particularity of the revelation given in Holy Scripture may be used in a homily for the Feast of the Epiphany. Then, a later move on the Flight into Egypt by the Holy Family may find its place in a homily for both Holy Innocents and Holy Family. Put simply, this extended homily is intended as a resource for preachers as various moves fall within one or more of the Feasts derived from the Matthean birth narrative.
[Preachers are urged to consult David Buttrick’s Homiletic in which he explores the Epiphany text in Matthew by way of leading us from an exegesis of the text “to a field of understanding, and then to the production of a sermon.” David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 305-17.]
“The Star in the East”
All of Persia was a-twitter about the star that had made its entrance in the heavens from the East. The most twittered people, though, were Persia’s astrologers, those magi. This new star meant something, probably a sign of the fate of some people, the nation, or even the world. You see, for these professional astrologers, the doings in the heavens had great impact upon the people on earth, for better or for worse. An explanation of this foreboding star was essential.
So a special meeting of the APA was called, the “Association of Persian
Astrologers.” The gathering was in an uproar until some wise member suggested that the Encyclopedia of Astrological Knowledge be consulted. And then, right under “Stars, Appearance of a New One,” the following information was found:
New Star from the North – A cold winter is certain, so prepare for bad weather.
New Star from the South – A hot summer for sure, so get ready for balmy weather.
New Star from the East – Meaning uncertain., but probably the birth of a king Most important to follow it.
So the APA chose a delegation of several of its members to do what the Encyclopedia had directed. Immediately, they set out to follow yonder star.
[Note to preachers: The somewhat facetious introduction is intended to set up several perspectives regarding the magi/astrologers. First, it is developed in contemporary, not past-tense consciousness. This means that we will not be pulling the assembly’s attention from a past-tense world to a present-tense one again and again in the homily. (Switching historical tenses is one of the easiest ways for the listeners to get lost in the homily.) We also intended to
establish the astrological emphasis on fate and foreboding. Finally, we needed to get that small delegation of magi on their way, “following yonder star.”]
The magi follow the star, getting as far as Jerusalem. Then the heavenly sign pauses and stops over the city. It will not lead the magi on to this birth of a king. So the magi begin to ask everyone “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod, the “king” of the Jews, hears about this question spreading through Jerusalem. Filled with fear, Herod consults the religious leaders and they inform him of the biblical prophecy, “In Bethlehem of Judea.” And here in the midst of this story, a profound wisdom is discovered. The natural world, even as
we ascribe to it the label of “the creation,” can only lead us so far toward the mystery of God. Only Scripture can finally bring us to an encounter with the Holy, Triune God. The magi are “stuck” in their journey in Jerusalem. Only God’s Word, written by the prophet Micah, could “unstick” the magi from their temporary residence in Jerusalem. In the words of an African American spiritual, the prophecy sang:
I'm gonna send thee one by one:
One for the little bitty baby. [a]
Born in Bethlehem.
(“Children, Go Where I send Thee”)
So great philosophers and theologians developed proofs for the existence of God. “The creation was ordered, therefore God must be a God of order,” they argued. But only in Scripture do we find this ordered God also reveling in the creation of humankind, angry at the disobedience of God’s chosen people, and sorrowful over a straying and self-centered people. Yes, the magi will abide for a while in Jerusalem until they learn from the Holy Scriptures that this “little bitty baby
was born in Bethlehem.”
But notice something important about Herod’s actions. He called together the religious leadership of Jerusalem. Matthew tells us that Herod’s motivation was based on his own sense of threat that a newborn king of the Jews would provide. So his real reason for inquiring where the Child would be born was not his own pious rationale to the magi—“when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” No, his real reason is that Herod wants to learn of the Child’s location and go there and kill him. But the religious leaders seem oblivious to this deeper motive for Herod’s interest in the Child’s whereabouts. In fact, here is another example of religious authorities acting out their interest in cozying up to power, even brutal power. We will see this same instinct at work in the German Church supporting Hitler during his rise to absolute earthly power.
On a somewhat milder scale, almost every administration in power has its own religious supporters over to the White House for dinner now and then. More recently, though, a new Herod named Vladimir Putin has his own religious
apologist. As new conscripts were being called up in Russia to fight in Ukraine, the Patriarch of Moscow, Krill, announced in a sermon that If someone, driven by a sense of duty, the need to fulfill an oath, remains true to his calling and dies in the line of military duty, then he undoubtedly commits an act that is tantamount to a sacrifice. He sacrifices himself for others, and therefore we believe that
this sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed. The Patriarch went on to compare such sacrifice of Russian soldiers to that of Christ. But in
Matthew’s story of the Epiphany, there is no Patriarch Krill. Rather, the religious leaders of Jerusalem seem delighted in assisting bloody Herod in his latest drive for power and domination. We stand warned by those in Jerusalem and in Moscow that while it is alluring at times to be acolytes to power, it is a deadly game that may put us up against God’s righteous Word. 1
Now the star again leads the way for the magi, pointing them to where the child was born. Bethlehem has become the center of the universe and there the star stopped. The magi entered the house, saw Mary with her newborn child, and they knelt down and worshipped him. They are the assembly of the faithful who offer all adoration and praise to the Christ Child. They offered gifts—gold and frankincense and myrrh—while, most importantly, offering themselves fully in worship of Emmanuel. They are our models for worship in its fullest expression. Not distracted, checking the time or looking around, the magi offer precious gifts, and mostly of all, they offer themselves in homage to the one born king of the Jews. So with the magi we sing,
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King…
Then, their worship concluded, the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They departed for their country by another way. However, there must have been a transformation in their encounter with the Christ Child and with biblical faith. You have to doubt that they returned to Persia as professional astrologers. It was no longer the stars that determined the fate of people and nations. Perhaps they even remained in Bethlehem long enough to learn the Holy Scriptures. If so, perhaps they returned home praying “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!” “Full of God’s glory” and not filled with portents and signs of doom. They returned home transformed, for they had seen and worshipped the Christ Child.
But while the magi were returning home, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel’s message was direct: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.” Joseph was then told that Herod “is going to search for the child to destroy him.” So Joseph heeds the angel’s warning and takes “the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.” So begins the long journey of this refugee family. No relatives down there in Egypt, no friends. They even speak a different language. Even more, the Holy Family leaves behind the lands of the tribes of Israel. They descend to a land of many gods and strange
practices. And Sabbath-keeping is not one of the customs of the Egyptians. The Orthodox Church is drawn to this story of the Flight to Egypt. It is at the heart of the Feast of the Epiphany. In the icons proclaiming this journey of the Holy Family iconographers typically write Joseph (icons are written, not painted) leading the way, holding the reins of the donkey with Blessed Mary seated on the docile beast and the Christ Child on the Virgin’s lap. In some versions of the icon of the Flight into Egypt, Mary is breast-feeding the Holy Child. One other feature may be found in these Epiphany icons. Up ahead of Joseph, as he leads the Family south,
are numerous statues and other monuments to the gods of Egypt. In one ethnic tradition, the gods are depicted as little white figures standing on the heights. But as the little procession continues, we look to their rear. The statues and monuments of the gods have crumbled and fallen to the ground. Where the little white figures of the gods had pranced about on the heights, they are now falling to the earth, all of them dead. An antiphon for the Epiphany sings of this
By shining in Egypt the light of truth,
you did dispel the darkness of falsehood;
for its idols fell, O Savior,
unable to endure your strength.
But it is not only on the journey into Egypt that idols fall at the advent of Jesus Christ. This Epiphany scene is repeated throughout the tradition of the church. Even now, we know what constitutes idolatry in our own land and we proclaim the power of Christ against these figures that are worshipped and adored.
Those celebrities who are “mega-influencers” to so many followers on social media. They may be gifted in music or beautiful or wealthy, but we know them to be sinners like ourselves. All in need of God’s grace. People also called to lives of self-giving and holiness.
Things may also serve as idols for us. Things you acquire that according to the ads
provide you with sanctuary, happiness, and perennial youth. All tantalizing idols.
Groups of people bound together by their own sense of primacy over other groups and individuals, folks divided by race, ethnicity, politics, you name it. But if your own group is automatically superior, for whatever reasons, you wind up worshipping an idol. And in every one of these cases of our captivity to the idols of our culture, when the Lord Jesus Christ comes by, they crumble and fall. “The idols fell, O Savior, unable to endure your strength.”
The Holy Family remains in Egypt until, once again, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Herod has died. “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.” So Joseph once more leads Mary and the Child, this time out of Egypt. They cannot return to Bethlehem because Herod’s son rules Judea and he is no better than his father. The angel has directed them to head north to Israel to a town called Nazareth in Galilee. But as they skirted around Jerusalem, you have to wonder about Mary’s intuitions of the place. Did she know that one day, her Son would enter Jerusalem on yet another donkey and that his followers and the
crowds would shout, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest”? That there would be a cross in his future, but that he would be raised from the dead on the third day to reign as Lord and Savior? For us, all of this is already present in these Feasts of the Nativity. The wood beams of the stable in so many paintings form the shape of a cross over the manger. The Epiphany hymn, “We Three Kings,” sings of the gift of myrrh as a “bitter perfume” anticipating the One who was “sorrowing sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” And then we sing:
Glorious now behold him arise.
King and God and sacrifice.
1 See: David Buttrick, Homiletic, 311.