Harrowing Of Hell
January 2, 2022

The Importance of Context

Frank Lawler, Lay Preacher

There is no shortage of darkness in the news: natural disasters, the pandemic, crime, homelessness.  In many ways, this is nothing new. There are many dark things in the Bible – the flood, the plagues of Egypt, the suffering and death of Christ upon the Cross. 

But at Christmastime, we are surrounded by expressions of joy.  Shepherds visiting the Christ Child. Angels singing in the heavens. Wise men showering gifts upon the newly-arrived Messiah.

Light is everywhere, and the darkness is gone… or is it?

The lessons appointed for the Second Sunday after Christmas include a reading from Matthew that jumps from verse fifteen to verse nineteen.  The Gospel reading for today leaves out the following:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

    wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Not exactly an occasion for rejoicing. I can hear you thinking: Of course they left that section out, Frank! It’s Christmastime! Give us a break! And I understand. Sometimes I need to turn off the radio when the news gets grim. We all need breaks from time to time. But it is important not to forget that those grim parts still exist. By leaving the grim section out, we are excising some of the context of today’s Gospel, not telling the whole story.

This morning I want to talk about context.  About how we, in attempts to reduce discomfort or complexity, tend to grab onto an idea and yank it out of its context to examine it, for good or bad, in complete isolation.  We want the world to be good and simple.  If it is not, we want to identify a reason that’s evil and simple.  We figure that the Christmas story would be all Good, except for Herod.  So let’s cut the Herod bit. Simple.

Several years ago, the Reverend Joy Carroll Wallis warned us in a Sojourners article against the complacency of Christmastime coziness: “It’s so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment… we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable.” 

She illustrated this by stating: “We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let’s not forget to put Herod back into Christmas.”

In today’s shortened reading from Matthew, Herod appears, but as a distant villain, vaguely threatening harm but comfortably far away from Bethlehem.

Yet the uncomfortable parts of scripture are still there, even if the lectionary literally skips over them –as it does today – or quietly schedules them as a lesson for a Thursday evening, such as the passage I read from Amos at evensong a few weeks ago:

Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake and shatter them on the heads of all the people; and those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape.

Wow. Harsh. These passages, among many others like it in the Bible, speak of times of darkness, of people dwelling in the shadow of death. They are not pleasant passages, but is it really a good idea to ignore all the passages in the Bible that are unpleasant?

In her sermon at the end of November, Kelli Martin pointed out that even during the time of Holiday joy, scripture might not seem too joyful. That instead, there appears to be an undercurrent of darkness. Of distress. And, as in the above example from Amos, written in the 8th century BC, this darkness isn’t limited to the time of Christ.  Darkness and distress have always been with us in some form or other. Today, we have the pandemic, homelessness, addiction… the list goes on. 

No wonder we are tempted to escape the negativity of our world by focusing on the Christ Child surrounded by singing angels, and Mary and Joseph looking on lovingly.  By taking all the nice, warm stuff out of its uncomfortable context and cozily wallowing in it by the fireside, perhaps while sipping a cup of eggnog.

Similarly, many of us are tempted to escape the complexity of our world by pulling darkness and distress out of its complicated context and turning it into a simple, focused evil that we can rail against righteously. Like our distant, bogeyman version of Herod.

Kelli suggested that we, as children of God, should not be trying to escape the powers of darkness and distress, but instead we should be facing them. In addition, Doyt has offered, on several occasions, that instead of trying to simplify and compartmentalize our worldview into two opposing camps, i.e., ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, regardless of who ‘we’ and ‘they’ are, we should strive to bear the world’s complexities and contradictions.  Yes, the darkness, distress, complexities, and contradictions of the world may pass all understanding. But to face them and bear them, God has given us his peace, which also passes all understanding.

Distress walks alongside joy.  Indeed, light is only appreciated, and its benefits felt when we have experienced the darkness.  If we ignore the darkness, we delude ourselves into believing that distress and misery doesn’t exist, or only manifest themselves in people who deserve their fate.

If we ignore the light, we regress to despair and fatalism or selfishness and cynicism.

Whenever we wish to truly understand scripture, whether its most joyful sections or its most distressing episodes, let us seek the context. In our Old Testament example…

The time of Amos was a time of inequity and injustice: his wrathful prophecies were warnings of accountability given to those who hoarded wealth and exploited the impoverished. The judgement of God was coming, he said, because the people of Israel have…

“sold the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They have trampled on the heads of the poor and denied justice to the oppressed.”

Out of context, the “I will kill with the sword“ passage in Amos sound like an excerpt from Game of Thrones. Only within context do we see that God wished to restore justice to an unjust world.

The lectionary is a wonderful way to get broad coverage of the bible, but even without removing uncomfortable passages, the context can be left out when we only get a weekly glimpse.  I encourage us all, when we come across a passage that makes us uncomfortable or confused, to press into that discomfort and understand the context of the passage.

When we attempt to avoid or ignore distress and darkness in scripture, or in our own lives, we leave ourselves open to be blindsided by times of distress and darkness when we cannot avoid them.

As I said earlier, Kelli encouraged us to face our fears knowing that God is there beside us. Doyt added, with his sermon on December 12, that those fears include threats of disease, of climate disruptions, of partisan animosity straining at the very fabric of our society. Remember, though, that just like scriptural distress and darkness, these all occur in context. If we focus on them only as isolated incidents of raw anxiety or horror, they can lead us down the path of despair: The feeling that things are so bad that we can’t see how we or anyone else is going to get out of this. The “hell in a handbasket” feeling.

When the context – or the big picture – goes away, we are left with nothing but raw, pure fear. This can lead to fatalistically closing in on ourselves, as we give up on the world and turn into a quivering mess.  If that wasn’t bad enough, we also become vulnerable to the powers of this world, which all too easily can turn that raw fear into blind anger through negative advertising and alarmist political slogans. Fear and anger are easy to exploit by those seeking power and wealth. Their message almost always boils down to: “Be afraid and mad: Pay no attention to the context.”  Rather like Dorothy and her companions in Oz being told: “Be amazed at the magic. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Context robs fear and anger of much of their power.

Let me give you a simple, present-day example: You’re running late to a men’s retreat, say. You’re driving a bit too fast to make up for lost time. You get stuck in traffic. You despair of getting there on time as you sit on a highway at a complete standstill, fuming. Angry at yourself for not leaving earlier. Angry at the government for not having better roads. Angry at the world for slowing you down. Then you notice that the reason the traffic has stopped is because a horrible accident has closed the highway in both directions. Vehicles are on fire. Undoubted casualties, perhaps even fatalities. It dawns on you that in context, your troubles are rather insignificant. It might even dawn on you that if you had left earlier, you might have been part of that accident. Your fear and anger slowly dissipate, and you feel a bit foolish to have gotten yourself worked up. You realize that the time spent railing against vague inconveniences while being stuck in traffic could have been used to pray for the victims of the accident and their families.

For those who arrived on time at St. Andrew’s House last month for the Men’s Retreat, any similarity between my late arrival and this example is purely coincidental.

But this is just one example of how decontextualized distress and darkness seize on our emotions, cloud our judgement, override our intelligence, and lead us to a feeling of fatalism, helplessness, and despair.

Now, to return to the missing verses in today’s Gospel: What is the context for Herod? If we leave him in place as a part of the story instead of yanking him out as a downer to the Christmas spirit, what do we get? In the midst of the story of the miraculous birth of Christ, we get the Massacre of the Innocents. Isn’t it nicer to just celebrate the birth of Christ without thinking about that nightmare, about all of those bereft and grieving parents? Isn’t Christmas more fun when we take out those few lines in the lectionary?

Before we answer the question, let’s closely consider the context. Instead of approaching it from our point of view, let’s approach it from the point of view of the residents of Bethlehem. Life was tough back then. Even in the best of times, having a child survive past the age of two wasn’t guaranteed. Herod’s proclamation made a dire situation a catastrophe. And yet, in the midst of disaster, in a manger in a stable, the Son of God was born. Hope came at a time of devastation, when it seemed that nothing could get worse.

That’s the message we get when we include those awful lines about Herod in the Christmas lesson. With those lines included, we face our current times of pandemic, climate change, global unrest, and political polarization remembering that when humankind faced a time of devastation, two thousand years ago, God sent his only Son to us.

When we consider darkness in our own time, remember that the Christ Child was born in a context of darkness. Remember Isaiah’s dazzling words searing through the gloom:

The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.

The bigger the context we have, the greater our understanding and the greater our ability to face the powers of this world.  The biggest context of all is the kingdom of God, a vista so panoramic that it needs a particularly wide-angle lens through which to view it. We at Epiphany have talked about a certain type of lens which does just that.  A bit of spiritual optics we call the Jesus Filter.

When faced with darkness, the Jesus Filter helps orient us in context.  It points us in the direction of understanding, love and action. Vague anger and unfocused fear are transformed into specific concerns and positive actions. We can see the contrast of joy against distress, of hope against despair. We see how we can act in our relationships with our neighbors to disperse distress and despair, so that, as Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians says, when darkness comes, it will not overtake us.