The savior child is born, with joy and calls to praise, but there is still danger and suffering for the waiting people.
The prophetic reading for the first Sunday after Christmas is a short passage praising the God who acted in the past to rescue the suffering people. The assurance of God’s past saving acts is the basis for hope in the present that God’s character is true and will again produce a reversal for these needy children of God. (“Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely,” verse 8, NRSV.)
This praise of past saving deeds is in fact only the opening of a long and passionate lament for new, urgently hoped-for saving events in the near future. (The full passage is Isaiah 63:7-64:12 [Heb. 64:11].) This lament speaks for a people excluded by Abraham and Israel (63:16), a people who has witnessed the destruction of cities and temple (64:10-11), and a voice heard in extremis at the beginning of Advent (64:1, read for the First Sunday in Advent of Year B). Such a powerful and impressive lament begins with our exclamation of praise for past saving deeds!
Though our passage of praise is quite brief, there are two different versions of it in ancient Jewish traditions. The Greek translation followed a slightly different Hebrew text from the one that became fixed in Rabbinic tradition. The Greek reads,
[God] became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence [literally “the Lord himself”] that saved them. [NRSV main text, following the LXX.]
The Masoretic text reads instead,
So He was their Deliverer. / In all their troubles He was troubled, / And the angel of His Presence delivered them. [JPS Tanakh version, also in NRSV footnote.]
The Greek text, used through the early ages by Christians, puts the emphasis on God’s own activity as savior, as distinct from intermediaries such as angels or strong men. The Masoretic reading puts the emphasis on God’s empathy with the suffering of the people—“in their troubles He was troubled”—and accepts an angelic presence in the actual salvation. (The King James Version, it might be noted, follows the Masoretic reading. “In all their affliction he was afflicted, …” )
The Psalm reading is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural form) God. The craft exhibited by the composer of the psalm is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds.
There are two large sections elaborating those called upon to praise, those in heaven and those on earth. The call to heavenly things (verses 1-4) repeats in rapid sequence seven imperatives to praise, moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm: praise should come from the heavens, from the heights, from all God’s angels (messengers), from all God’s host (army), from sun and moon, from all lighted stars, and supremely, from the heaven of heavens enclosed by the cosmic waters. These seven imperatives are followed by an exhortation: “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads, finally, to a reason for the praise: because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever.
The strategy of the second section (verses 7-13) is not to repeat the call to praise each time, but to elaborate more fully those to whom it is addressed. The imperative “Praise ye …” is given only once at the beginning, then followed by a chain of earthly things, places, and people who are included in this imperative: the earth; sea monsters and deeps; lightning and hail, snow and frost, storm winds (all weather elements reside in cosmic storehouses); mountains and hills; trees for fruit and huge cedars; moving toward the human world, animals wild and domestic, crawling creatures and winged birds; and finally the varieties of people – kings and clans, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old folks and kids. The long enthusiastic enumeration intends to be exhaustive, including everyone, all addressed by the command to “Praise the Lord.” Again, the imperative chain is followed (verse 13) by an exhortation, “Let them praise the name of the Lord.” And, finally again, a reason for the summons to praise is given: because “his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven” (NRSV).
Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague? The poet has completed the original basic structure, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised: “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for the people of Israel who are close to him” (verse 14). This psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people (more of that will come later); it is about the heavenly and earthly realms transformed by God’s gift of such a leader.
The Epistle reading emphasizes the incarnation in the Christmas message. A divine son and brother came into the human condition, joining the brothers and sisters soon to be saved, and defeating the powers of sin and death on behalf of those in bondage.
For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father [literally “are from one (source)”]. For this reason Jesus is not afraid to call them brothers and sisters… (verse 11, NRSV).
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death (verses 14-15).
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (verses 17-18).
The message of the Incarnation is that we are not alone. One like us, but with power and compassion, has penetrated our condition and has made for us a path to life and new being.
The Gospel reading presents the coming of Jesus as re-enacting the sacred history of the birth of Israel.
There are three episodes included in the reading, each with a prophetic saying that the episode is said to “fulfill.” One of the most distinctive things about the Gospel According to Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). The Sermon is presented as the Law to be observed by the disciples of Jesus instead of the old traditional law from Sinai. The Sermon is the new Torah given at Sinai, and the episodes that precede the Sermon highlight a few moments of the Israelite story before Sinai.
In all these episodes Joseph is the actor, and he is guided by the angel of the Lord who speaks to him in dreams. In the first episode Joseph is told to take the holy baby and its mother to Egypt for safe-keeping – as Joseph, the son of Jacob, went to Egypt before his brothers to save them from famine (Genesis 37-46). This was to fulfill the prophecy in which God said, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (The full verse, Hosea 11:1, reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, / and out of Egypt I called my son,” NRSV.)
The second episode is the “slaughter of the innocents,” as it is traditionally called. The wicked King Herod corresponds to Pharaoh in the Moses story, who out of fear of the revolutionary threat of the Israelites ordered that their male children be killed after birth (Exodus 1:22). Herod, afraid of a new king in Judah, gives orders to kill all the boys under two years old in the neighborhood of Bethlehem. Jesus is saved because he is already in Egypt, but many of the sons of Rachel died in the slaughter. Rachel, favorite wife of patriarch Jacob, had died and been buried in the vicinity of Bethlehem, where a stone monument marked the mourning rites observed by her descendants (Genesis 35:19-20). These mourning rites near Bethlehem are referred to by the prophet Jeremiah, whose prophecy is “fulfilled” by this episode (Jeremiah 31:15, which Matthew 2:18 follows very closely.)
The third episode of the reading is the secret return from Egypt and the migration to Galilee because there was still danger in Judea. If this has a parallel in the book of Exodus, it must be the flight of Moses from Pharaoh’s death penalty, a flight that took Moses to the land of Midian, where he got a family and eventually found God (see Exodus 2:11-3:12). In Matthew, however, the “prophecy” fulfilled by this move has nothing to do with Galilee, but reads “He will be called a Nazorean” (Matthew 2:23). Nobody knows where this prophecy came from, and even for certain just what it means. The key is probably lost in early Jewish-Christian backgrounds to the traditions collected for this Gospel. Nevertheless, this episode too is clearly intended to present a prophetic foundation for seeing Jesus as fulfilling Israel’s destiny as a chosen people.
Joseph, guided by the angel of the Lord, has carefully preserved the savior of Israel through the threats of wicked men and the tragedies of suffering innocent ones.