Matthew 2:13-23 – The 1st Sunday following Christmas – for December 29, 2013
“When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph…” (Matthew 2:19)
It was dark; we were paralleling a river and the cold evening air mixed with the water to produce swirling fog.
First it was one deer, leaping across the road. I braked and went from slow to slower. Then two more burst from the gray-shrouded woods. Then another. Though not at a complete stop, a crawling baby would have moved faster that we were. We eased forward, holding our breath, the four deer now a memory of flashing legs and fog wisps. It was a moment when my rational brain knew what I had witnessed, but at the same time I had a “Was it real?” question swirling in my mind like the evening’s fog.
Then a fifth deer burst across. Then gone.
How much time had passed? Five seconds? Ten? Both of us, our car at a complete stop, stared through the windshield. Was it real?
I was remembering those Wisconsin deer because on my drive home last night I steered through numerous “herds” of deer.
Deer as Christmas-time lawn ornaments have become de rigueur in our neck of the suburban woods in the last few years. The first usually arrive before Thanksgiving. Then it’s the more the merrier as we plunge into Advent. I drove by lawn after lawn with brightly lighted deer grazing in the front yards. White lights twinkled across the bent wire frames that shaped heads and legs, shoulders and haunches. Some of the deer were stationary; others—with a small motor silently humming—had a metallic head gracefully rotating back and forth.
I could get Scrooge-y about these silly decorative deer and bah-humbug their presence, but I confess to a bit of seasonal wonderment.
The deer back in Wisconsin were not so well lighted. They were hoofed mysteries bounding out of the darkness, shadows coming alive. Their night run forced us to slow and stop and catch our breath.
My wife said, just as that last deer unexpectedly emerged, “I’m glad you are driving!”
How odd, and yet how inevitable, that in our journey toward Christmas we surround ourselves with such innocent appearing ornaments. We have smiling snowmen and jolly Santas. We have a sweet-faced Jesus safely tucked in a plywood manger. We have perfectly shaped snowflakes dangling from artificial trees and sturdy soldiers marching to the strains of the Nutcracker. A mechanical deer’s head swivels, back and forth, back and forth.
We like to be safe and sweet and believe that all is well, all is good.
The Christmas story, as told by the gospels, is always hard-edged and filled with human terror. However, we humans get uneasy when the truth is served to us with unanswered questions and difficult choices. The carols we sing in this season mostly ignore the brutality of Herod or the hulking power of Rome that caused the worn down citizens to cower and whimper (and to trudge toward Bethlehem while eight months pregnant). Before and after the nativity, according to Matthew’s harrowing tale, Joseph’s dreams kept hounding him about reality . . . the reality of Herod’s insidious scheming and then later Archelaus (Herod’s son) and his inherited anger. Some of the Christmas story is fact and some is fiction, but every verse reveals a harrowing truth about the powerful that lust to conquer and control and the “weak” that survive and thrive through God’s unwavering love.
Instead, let’s just sing the happy songs. Please! Let’s remember the season with a cheery Santa waving from a chimney or a well-lighted deer solemnly swiveling its head. The wire-framed deer sometimes looks our way but never really sees us.
But for now, and for some of my deepest needs as a person of faith, I like to remember those other deer, coming out of the darkness of a river bottom, charging across the roadway. “Don’t be afraid,” the angels keep saying in their greetings during the Christmas stories. Which is to say, there’s much to be afraid of in the human story. But God, who is mysterious and elusive and powerful, and discerned by a love we can only barely imagine, moves through our human darkness. We glimpse hope and glory. The Holy, moving like the leaping shadows of wild deer, can stop us in the middle of our nights. God sees our truest needs. The Holy will take our breath away.
I will drive home these nights, admiring the deer on the lawns, and always enjoying the Christmas songs. But my faith is more deeply gripped by glimpses of a God who reminds me to be afraid as much as to not be afraid, and to trust a wild path toward Christmas’ longing of love, and peace for all.
(This essay was revised from an “old” one. But I posted it while recovering from carpal tunnel surgery. I hope you’ll forgive my “rerun,” since all I can do right now is clap with one hand!)