I remember a few years ago trying to find my way around in one of the grottier parts of our city, in Northbridge a few blocks over from the smart restaurant strip, leaving my car in a dubious-looking parking lot and trying to find my way through this part of the city that just seemed to be one gigantic building site – massive holes filled with concrete footings in between dilapidated 1940s era office buildings, warehouses and disreputable-looking shops. It was one of those grey afternoons when the city streets act like wind-tunnels, and your eyes get filled with dust and grit, the gutters full of fast-food wrappers, the traffic was banked up and behind the wheel of every car sat somebody in a foul temper. Pedestrians avoided eye-contact, walking quickly as though they’d rather be anywhere else other than where they were, or at least that was how I felt. There was a constant noise of jackhammers and car horns, and to top it off I couldn’t find the address I was supposed to be going to.
And then I saw what could only have been an angel. It’s not as though there was no colour at all along the street, a few of the shops had window-boxes with tired-looking geraniums in them, and there were some scrappy trees along the footpath, but still, everything looked grey and depressed. Or maybe it was just me? I don’t exactly know. But then I happened to catch a movement out of the corner of my eye, something fluttered that wasn’t a chip wrapper, and I saw this tiny butterfly, kind of scittering sideways because of the wind, all yellow and black and red and orange. And it delicately landed on top of a parking meter and sat there flexing and stretching its wings. Utterly out of place. Utterly simple. Utterly beautiful. Utterly fragile. Utterly different. And it paused there just for a moment, while I gawked at it, and then it took off again, navigating uncertainly, straight up into the concrete canyon.
And it seems to me that that is how God comes into the world. Into the grottier parts of our lives and of our world. Into the backstreets of Bethlehem, insignificant but much fought over, both then and now. Born to a peasant family, pushed halfway across the country at the bureaucratic whim of an occupying power, arguably illegitimate, coming to rest for a brief and achingly beautiful moment before fleeing the murderous insecurity of another petty tyrant.
Utterly out of place. Utterly simple. Utterly beautiful. Utterly fragile. Utterly different.
So different, in fact, that I wonder if anyone really noticed.
Sure, we’ve had our Christmas lunches and our plastic Christmas trees and fake Santas, and maybe we’ve done the right thing with Kevin Rudd’s Christmas handout. Personally, I ate far too many prawns and Christmas pud and fruit mince pies. And I’ve had a marvellous time the whole last fortnight or so, singing Christmas carols at Bentley Hospital and Castledare and Agmaroy and here at St Michaels. I’ve enjoyed the cuteness of our little nativity scene on our mantelpiece in the Rectory and the icicle lights and the poignancy of waiting through Advent even though I know how the story is going to turn out. I feel like I’ve really ‘done’ Christmas this year. And now here we are on the downward slope again, the season that the Church calls Christmas but the rest of us are already mentally on to the next thing, just counting down the 12 days before we can stick the fake Christmas tree back in its box.
Actually I read the other day, an editorial in The Australian, about the parents who insisted their child not receive any religious education at school because they didn’t want her little head filled with superstitious nonsense. But then they complained to the principal because their little girl wasn’t allowed to go to the Christmas party. Everybody knows, the parents wrote, that Christmas parties have got nothing to do with Jesus.
Well, maybe they’ve got a point. All this partying and eating and spending up big. All this goodwill, especially toward retailers who looked a fortnight or so ago as though they were going to miss out, but it turns out they’ve had a good one after all, $500 million more than last year, so all’s well that ends well. It seems to me we’ve so loaded up the whole Christmas thing, that we’ve piled it up so high with paraphernalia and obligation and busy-ness that it becomes that city street all over again—our senses numbed by the sheer excessiveness of it all that we’ve effectively blinded ourselves to the simpleness of what God is actually trying to tell us, and show us. The utter incongruity of a fragile butterfly descending on to a gritty, noisy city street. The utter incongruity, the sheer ephemeral fragility of a God who comes among us as a baby born to a homeless couple. What sort of a sign is this, actually?
And I think that’s why the church gives us today’s sobering counterpoint—right after Christmas day. There are actually three days after Christmas to recall the martyrs. Stephen, John, and now, perhaps the hardest of all, the infants of Bethlehem. What a shift of gear! What a discordant note as the happy sounds of Christmas carols fade! The murder of children. The death of innocent babies. Surely the lectionary writers could put today’s readings somewhere more appropriate – maybe somewhere in Lent when we’re already in a sombre mood?
It jars us back to reality. Back to the world that we know so well. Where children are the victims of the powerful. Where they die from hunger, bombs, and disease so that those of us who have enough can enjoy the privilege of the artificial—happily numb to the reality around us. Happily deaf to the cries of Zimbabwean and Congolese mothers over their children who are no more. Happily oblivious to the fate of Aboriginal children in our own wealthy country born with a life expectancy 20 years less than the rest of us, children in remote communities as young as five suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. While we nostalgically sing of silent nights and kings and stars.
And so, just in time, the church reminds us that this infant is not some pretty dream to insert into our self-serving preconceptions. That, quite to the contrary, this baby is a threat. This good news—that God is with us—is dangerous.
Herod the Great, first in the convoluted line of Herods celebrated in the Gospel stories, was actually sophisticated, intelligent, ruthless and amoral. Just the sort of puppet king the Romans loved, in fact. And Herod was right that the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the magi could only lead to trouble. Schooled in the brutal realpolitik of the Roman Empire of the first century Herod understood only too well that this child—this potential king of the Jews—this Infant Jesus—threatened his power. He understood that this delicate, fragile entry of God in the world had the potential of turning his kingdom on end.
Because this child was a sign of a different kind of authority. Authority not defined by power or the size of an army or the security of borders—rather authority defined by the tender compassion of God that hears the cry of Rachel weeping for her children. Authority defined by smallness that, barely perceptible, catches us completely off guard. Authority defined by weakness that terrifies the strong.
Because this child is the sign of hope. Dangerous, uncontrollable hope. Hope that can see that this world isn't the way things have to be. It is not God's will that power should come through violence. It does not have to be that for me to have enough, someone in the developing world has to go without. It does not have to be that to keep peace and prosperity and democracy innocent men and women and children have to be pushed into refugee camps.
And I know this because God comes to us as a child. God intrudes into our ways of death with life—tiny, beautiful, fragile life. With tiny hands and butterfly wings, much too small to make any practical difference at all, God touches the tears of Rachel weeping, and pleads with us in the words of the prophet Jeremiah—maybe there is hope for our future if we can just allow the sound of her weeping and the softness of her tears to melt our hard hearts.
But we are too easily frightened by our own security. We are disturbed by this God breaking open our priorities and pointing us to something different—something terrifying and holy and new.
And in our fear, this tiny, fragile life is shattered on the cross. God’s hands nailed to the cross, over and over again, all through history and into our own time and our own world. But here’s the most powerful lesson of all. With butterfly wings and wounded hands, this fragile life proves more indestructible than the most powerful violence of this world.
Something has changed in our world for ever. A mutant strain of beauty has been sown. A beauty - fragile as a butterfly - that resists the age-old truth that the possible and the permissible are defined by concrete and exhaust fumes and petrodollars. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord. Amen.