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This Pause, This Stilling of the Air

December 30, 2007

Denise Kelsall

Christmas 1     Matthew 2:13-23


Well, the wait and the anticipation are over. Gifts have been given and wowed over or not, gargantuan quantities of food has been consumed, lots of good NZ wine drunk and hopefully much laughter and catching up with those people that we have missed during the year yet are an important part of the fabric of our lives. We remember times past nostalgically, we think of Christmases past, we relive and reinforce family traditions, maybe create new ones and think of the changes and losses over the years.


We finally get to relax after all the demands of preparation, and it goes in a flash. For most it is a time of fun, of merrymaking, of joy, of giving – for others, sadly, it accentuates problems and pain – feelings are heightened at this time.


Christmas is a wonderful and strangely human season. At the same time as being the culmination of the secular working year and a time for festivity and celebration, it pre-eminently signifies the beginning of Christianity with the birth of Jesus. It is like a pause, a stilling of the air, an oasis in the everyday stuff of life. One where we unconsciously acknowledge the creative process of birth that reveals our very human vulnerability. This pause or stilling of the air tends to come after all the traditional Christmas day festivities, and seems to hold to New Year. It is like a no-mans land where we are given time to laze, reflect and enjoy quiet streets and wander about in old comfortable gear finishing off the remains of Christmas day, reading that new book, watching that new DVD, or maybe just sleeping whenever we feel like it. Compulsion is gone and this can be a welcome plateau of respite from the daily toil.


To recap the Advent season – it begins with prophetic warnings and calls to repentance, to the profound faith and acceptance of a pregnant woman, to the in-breaking of God – the birth of Jesus into the world, then we go out again to a world that hurts and is glorious at the same time – full of pain and promise, where we are all blessed and broken.


Reading all the biblical texts before Christmas is like waiting for presents as a child – you just know they are coming and its SO exciting because its all out there coming towards you with all the bustle, rustle and expectation – and even though you know about Christmas and the real story too, it is still the most special time, year in and year out


So today’s gospel text brings us back to reality. After all the celebration and bells and angels and singing and sparkly things, it brings a shaft of darkness, a reminder that blessing and tragedy are part of one another, that we see goodness and love always against the backdrop of fear and destruction.


The gospel today speaks of the darkness of the soul of a man who will ruthlessly murder all babies up to the age of two in his attempt to maintain power and glory for himself. It is often observed that this passage in Matthew is a variation on the biblical theme of rescue, this time paralleling the rescue of Moses in the bulrushes when he is escaping the deathly hands of the mighty Pharaoh in Egypt.


But as a wider reading, at heart, it is about all people who hold supreme power and control over others, and how they use it. Herod was part of a cruel dynastic succession of rulers aided by Rome. These represent rulers who become degenerate in their seemingly limitless power and become megalomaniac, jealous and fearful.


For that is what this story indicates: Herod was fearful of being supplanted, jealous of any threat to his power and supremacy – enough to wantonly massacre countless innocent children on the basis of a rumour, in an attempt to head off any challenge to his primacy and absolute power.


This brings me to the shock I felt this week when hearing of the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. The stilling of the air is rent with gunshots and bombs. Apart from feeling sick about the tragedy, the gravity and the bloody turmoil this action is unleashing, apart from feeling the desperation of those who want a more free and representative society and their sheer anguish at the dashing of these hopes – apart from wanting to strike out at her assassins and the plotters myself in my impotent fury – apart from the fact that she was beautiful, intelligent, fallible and courageous, and was trying to bring some justice, however slight, to her country, apart from all the terrible waste and blighted ignorance.


It all comes back to the threat she posed to someone, somebody, some set of interests, local and/or global, some mad and sad religious misogynist and more.

These people who did not want her, what she represented, her politics and her danger. So now she is dead – a gory bloody public death for trying to do something that threatened the greed of others. So another martyr is created.


I often feel hopeless as I watch from my cosseted place here in New Zealand – the international jockeying for power and control, for resources and wealth. It is obscene and makes degenerates of powerful people, so that life and death are merely part of a statistical analysis, where life is totally expendable, where it is always the lower socio-economic who fight the wars, who suffer and starve, and therefore, die.


This is the world we live in: one of privilege that all our societies appear to rest upon.


For they do – don’t they?


What can we do? How can we be heard? What is it that we must do to stop becoming complacent and seduced by our western consumerist lifestyle that is gobbling up the world and swallowing people’s souls? How do we overcome our fears? Are we to take inspiration from the Berlin Wall and see our thoughts, our actions, our prayers as miniscule contributions to the dismantling of unjust regimes and political ideologies? Do we write, join local and global justice movements?


Give that extra time and effort to try to understand our place and our responsibilities too? Above all, how do we keep our courage and our conviction in front of us, driving us to action, however limited small and pathetic we may perceive it?


A major theme running through this gospel reading is to preserve life amidst death and destruction. We are in that life this very moment, and I think that this period of time between Christmas and New year, “this pause, this stilling of the air” can be a time of deep reflection for all of us, to be used as an intentional respite from everyday demands and to dwell on the sort of world we live in, what it asks of us as Christians personally and communally. Here we can have our own “flight into Egypt” and consider our lives and our choices in a world where alongside the beauty, the potential, and the love, the darkness of Herod is ever present.

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