A danger in regularly reading, or listening to passages of the Bible, is our human tendency to let Scripture become a rote activity for us—whether we are worshippers or whether we are teachers…who must teach…the same passages of Genesis…over…and over…and over…! If we are engaged as listeners, or are experienced as teachers, we (or at least I) expect to run into the same observations over and again. Yet, I am reminded continually that, no matter how many times I read a passage of Scripture, there is always something new to be seen, and every reading demands that I hear the Word of God in a new way.
Earlier this week, I had scheduled my “Introduction to Theology” course to read some selections from the Infancy Narratives. I regretted that we would be out of sync with the liturgical season, forced to think about mangers and magis just a few days after Easter. Nonetheless, we persevered. After discussing why one might be interested in having a narrative of Jesus’ birth, the students turned to considering the differences between Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts: while Luke has lovely angels and songs of praise, Matthew is decidedly dark. In Matthew, we have an anxious Joseph, assured that he should take Mary as his wife in a mysterious dream (1:19-24). A power-hungry Herod attempts to send the magis as spies, yet the wisemen rebel and thwart him (2:7-12). Finally, an enraged Herod orders the mass murder of all infant boys—and Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus flee as refugees to the land of Egypt (2:13-18). There are no angels crying “Gloria” for Matthew.
As the students were talking, and the tragic nature of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative was ringing in my ears, my mind was nowhere near our recent Paschal Triduum. Then, one student raised a hand and observed: “Bad things always happen before a covenant.” My mind began racing: floods come before rainbows; near-child sacrifice comes before descendants who will outnumber the stars; slavery comes before sanctification and salvation. Reading the Infancy Narratives (again), suddenly I saw a new thing. For Matthew, the dark world of Jesus’ birth provides the tragic scene of brokenness, of sin, of sadness, into which God breaks; in the midst of suffering, deception, and terror, God is come, and God has come to transform that suffering and sadness. The dark night of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative makes way for the dawn of Jesus’ ministry and offer of a new covenant relationship with God. As Matthew’s gospel continues, we are called to “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” God who is with us—Emmanuel—is on the doorstep with his winnowing fork in his hand (3:2; 1:23; 3:12).
Just as the Incarnation emerges in a world of hatred and sin, so too, does the Resurrection. Our Good Friday is the “bad thing” that happens before we enter into the New Covenant—a relationship of faith in the Risen Lord. For me, my liturgically-untimely distribution of readings on the syllabus was more fortuitous than I imagined. Yet again, I was surprised, and yet again, a new voice asked me to hear Scripture calling: “Behold, I am doing a new thing…do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).