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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day 275: At Great Cost

Today's Reading: Matthew 2, Luke 2:39-52

During Christmas, I am usually focused on a sweet baby who we hope doesn't cry, a cleaned up Mary, a costumed Joseph with glued on beard, shepherds who are trying to keep their headpieces on, baby angels with tinsel halos and wise men tripping over their too long robes. Reading the nativity narratives during October is helping me to see beyond the Christmas pageant stereotype of Jesus birth.

Chapter 2 of Matthew is really quite disturbing. After the mysterious story of wise men coming from afar, we hit a horrible story of slaughter and then the great escape of the Holy Family to Egypt. Often the slaughter of innocence is relegated to the Sunday lectionary after Christmas, and rarely preached. After all, who wants to ruin the festivities of Christmas with the reality of the cost of the incarnation. It is much like receiving the credit card bills in January.

Research shares that the average American spends between $700-800 on Christmas. That is an average of $2,800-3,600 per household of four people. Is this shocking to you or does this seem about right? Consider not only the gifts but the decorations, food, parties and travel and the number begin to make more sense.

But these numbers are minimal compared to the cost of the first Christmas. Let's look at these three stories and see if we can begin to imagine some of the initial costs of the incarnation.

Who were the wise men and what did it cost the magi to travel from "the east" to Israel?

The wise men most likely came from Persia (modern Iran and Iraq) and probably served as priests and members of the Parthian government during the time Jesus was born. The most important duty of this group was the selection of the next king for their country.

The distance, then, would have been anywhere from 500-1000 miles, taking at least six to eight weeks. The caravan needed for travel alone would have consisted of animals, slaves or porters, food, shelter and money to make passage through dangerous and barren lands.

The political risk was also great. Rome was not a welcoming empire to people from other lands, especially people from enemy groups.

The magi carried great treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Wealthy travelers were at the mercy of ruthless desert thieves. The cost was great but even greater was the risk to their very lives.

And speaking of lives risked, imagine the cost of the descendants of David living in Bethlehem. All male children under the age of two were slaughtered. Though the numbers vary as to exactly how many children this would be, can we comprehend the devastation and great sorrow. In Bethlehem, there were at least two years when no young man became a "Son of Righteousness." Synagogue classes were empty. Young girls had no male playmates and grew up with no male counterparts for their age. We forget the mother's grief and the father's helplessness as children were grabbed from homes and cut in two. What kind of horror and fear did that place in the people of Bethlehem?

One more story in this chapter. Mary and Joseph must steal away into the night and head toward Egypt, at least a 300-500 mile journey. Most likely, Joseph walked the entire distance; perhaps Mary rode. But imagine leaving all you know, entering a foreign land in order to save a child who isn't even your own. Joseph not only risked his reputation to shelter Mary and her child, he risked his livelihood and his life.

So what will Christmas cost us this year? Or would it be better to ask ourselves, what are we willing to risk this year at Christmas that we might join in the story--the story of salvation offered to all; of peace on earth and goodwill?

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