Ever since I had Isaac, I can hardly bear to watch animated movies with tragic story lines about parents and sons. Finding Nemo? Forget about it. Bambi? No. The Lion King. Definitely not.
I’ve learned to avoid a lot of these movies, but one recently caught me by surprise. I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming, because I’d seen the movie before AND I know the story by heart, but there I was, a blubbering mess.
The movie was The Prince of Egypt, and if you’ve never seen it, the opening scene is tough. It’s a movie for children so it isn’t graphic, but between the emotional lyrics crying out, “Deliver us!”, the implied slaughter of thousands of baby Jewish boys, and a mother’s desperate attempt to save her son by placing him in a basket in a river–well, I was done. Like, heaving, sobbing cries.
Future viewers, be ye warned.
I don’t know when I’ll ever watch that movie again, but here’s the funny thing about it–my mind has returned to that opening scene throughout this Christmas season.
This is why:
Although the Christmas season typically evokes peaceful scenes of silent nights, the gospel of Matthew presents us with a very different tale. It’s in Matthew that we encounter the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” when Herod is so threatened by the news of a competitor king that he orders the murder of all the male children in Bethlehem who are under the age of two.
Amidst this terror and chaos, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt, where they remain until Herod’s death.
This is a Christmas story we rarely tell, but it’s important for two key reasons. The first is that it deliberately echoes the birth story of Moses. Matthew wanted to highlight the similarity between Moses’ and Jesus’ beginnings so that his Jewish listeners would see Jesus as a leader–and a deliverer–like Moses.
The second reason Matthew’s story matters–and the reason I keep returning to The Prince of Egypt–is the horror of it. Both Moses’ and Jesus’ stories begin in a time of great darkness, and both men burst onto the scene like a beacon of light.
As difficult as their birth stories are, they are far more relevant to our present lives than any “silent night.” Just last week, when I heard the news that over 100 children were murdered in Pakistan, I wandered around in a daze. It was a modern day Slaughter of the Innocents.
And then there is our own nation, in which this Advent has been marked by racial strife. Innocent lives–of both civilians and policemen–have been lost and mourned. Mothers are left without sons, sons without fathers.
And then there’s our own individual lives. Some of you are marking your first Christmas without a child, a parent, a spouse, or a dear friend. For some, this is your first Christmas in which your parents are divorced. For others, your first Christmas separated from your spouse.
For others, the season has not seen tragedy but it has seen stress. That’s where I’m at this Christmas. I’m overwhelmed by the busyness of the season as my pregnant body struggles to keep up. I’ve been battling a cough for 2 weeks that I cannot kick, and Christmas shopping feels like an insurmountable task.
This year, the Christmas season has left me feeling aware of my limitations. It’s also confronted me with the brokenness of this world. But as odd as it sounds, I can’t help but think these are fitting sentiments for Advent. If we take Matthew’s account seriously, anyway.
That’s the strange grace of the Christmas season craziness. It accentuates the great joy of Jesus’ birth. The blackness of our world reminds us why his birth shines so brightly. It reminds us why we need a Savior.
In Matthew 2:10, we are told that the wise men “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”John Piper calls this a “quadruple way of saying they rejoiced.” It is the utmost expression of joy, a joy that goes far beyond the warm sentimentality of American Christmas. It’s not the joy of Christmas cards, Christmas cookies, or even quality time with family. It is the joy of the rescued.
That’s why, as Advent draws to a close, I hope you will remember Matthew’s Christmas story and what it means for your own. Whether this Christmas is marred by grief or simply fatigue, your feelings have a strange belonging in the Christmas season. In fact, they might be your only window into the “exceeding joy” that is the birth of Christ. It is how we remember that we needed a savior, more than anything we’ve ever needed in history.
And he came.