Sunday, December 22, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Advent
It is a mo‘ōlelo or story I have shared with you before. It appears in Night, a book written by Elie Wiesel describing his experiences as a 16-year-old boy in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II.
This is the story: One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains – and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seem more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
This time, the Lagerkapo [or camp captain] refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.
A sign from the head of the camp. The deed was done. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads?”
Then the march past began. The two adults no longer alive. But the third, he was too light; the child was still alive. For more than half an hour, he died slowly under our eyes.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here he is – He is hanging here on this gallows.” (Night, Elie Wiesel, 1956).
In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the literary work he did as by the gaping void he filled. In the aftermath of the Germans’ systematic massacre of Jews [throughout the war], no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed” our conception of ourselves as human beings and our conception of God. (“Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies at 87,” Joseph Berger, The New York Times, July 2, 2016).
I know it may be disturbing for us to hear such a story – about the slow death of a child when we are in the midst of preparing to welcome the birth of another child. I will admit to you that I would rather hear a story about a starlit night and a manger filled with warm straw as a mother and father fawn over the birth of a new born baby, surrounded by sheep and shepherds with angels singing.
In announcing the birth of Jesus, our reading from today from The Gospel According to Matthew focuses on Joseph’s marriage to Mary, who is “with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). There are no references to the manger or shepherds living in the fields or the appearance of an angel.
In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we hear the proclamation of John the Baptist that Jesus is “the one to come” who is more powerful than he (Matthew 3:11). Matthew expands on John’s proclamation about who Jesus is in four stories. Jesus is a descendant from Abraham and David (Matthew 1:1-17). He is the child of the virgin Mary, wife of Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25); the king of the Jews and the hope of the nations (Matthew 2:1-12) and God’s son who is called out of Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23).
Much may be said about the various ways Matthew attempts to respond to questions that were prompted by the church’s claim about Jesus. Among the questions raised: “How can Jesus be the son of David when his genealogy is traced through Joseph (Matthew 1:16), who was not his father. In what way can it be claimed that this unusual birth was of God’s doing? And where does this child fit into the divine scheme of promise and fulfillment?” (Preaching Through the Christian year A, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1992, page 28).
While all of this may be theologically interesting for some, the key verse for me this morning comes from the proclamation made by the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream reminding him of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23).
It is said that central to “Wiesel’s work was reconciling the concept of a benevolent God with the evil of the Holocaust.” Where is God when we are faced with the pain and suffering we experience in the world and in our own lives?
It would not be until years following the end of the war that Wiesel would openly wrestle with the horror of the Holocaust. “Still,” it is said, “he never abandoned faith; indeed,” it is said that ʻhe became more devout as the years passed’” (“Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies at 87,” Joseph Berger, The New York Times, July 2, 2016).
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
All this took place, Matthew tells us, to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah. His name shall be “Emmanuel” which means, “God is with us.
Indeed, “God is with us” in the birth of the child Jesus – and I would dare to say that “God is with us” in the senseless deaths of all children everywhere.