First Sunday of Christmas in Year A (Meyer23)

Praise God! Creation as Balm for Grief – Emily Meyer reflects on the slaughter of the Innocents through lenses of culpability and grief – and how community and creation can move lament and grief toward gratitude and joy.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Psalm 148 is a joyful exploration of the complexity, diversity, and interrelatedness of all creation. The great chorus of praise is diverse, multitudinous, and universal. It reminds us of nature’s vulnerability and great strength: what affects one affects all. From our burgeoning understanding of root system’s communication networks and soil biodiversity to the oft repeated, “When a butterfly flaps its wings…”, Psalm 148’s inclusion in this week’s readings encourages us to reflect on the ever-expanding ripple effects the death of one organism – or the extinction of one species – can have on ecosystems on the other side of the world, including humanity. Psalm 148 reminds us that it is not only human children who have been and are being slaughtered in the name of political, corporate, and/or social fears. It also reminds us that in nature we find both model and actual succor in the face of communal grief, that by placing ourselves – and our grief – within creation’s complexity, diversity, and interrelatedness, we become more resilient and, in fact, we are restored.

Like Ramah before them, and Bethlehem in today’s Matthew reading, many of our communities find themselves in a paradoxical position of weeping and lamenting, while quietly carrying the (unacknowledged?) additional weight of complicity in either their own suffering, or the suffering of other communities.

In preparation for this First Sunday after Christmas, it is worthwhile to attend to Matthew 2:3, in which “King Herod… and all Jerusalem with him” are frightened by the news of a new king being born. “All Jerusalem” has good reason to be afraid – not because a new king has been born, but because Herod is afraid. There is nothing more frightening for a population than a frightened despot. Frightened authoritarian leaders do frightening things. Unfortunately, frightened populations often allow frightening things to happen – either to themselves, or to a scapegoat population they are willing to sacrifice for their own preservation.

So the wailing of Ramah during Babylonian captivity, echoed in Herod’s despotic slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem, serve as precursors to the countless ways political, corporate, and social leaders, with the endorsement of fearful populations continue to torture families and slaughter the innocents in cages at our borders; in school shootings; on our streets; in sex and drug trafficking; in traffic stops and school-to-prison pipelines; in climate-change-induced drought, famine, disease, inflation, war, and economic distress; in Afghan coal mines and Midwestern meat packing houses; and, of course, COVID-19 – anywhere and everywhere fearful populations sanction the slaughter of innocents, political, corporate, and institutional leaders will oblige.

To avoid our culpability, many of us read this text and see only Herod’s fear and action. But a fearful populace is also responsible for allowing atrocities to occur – decidedly more so now than in Herod’s day.

Rather than avoid culpability, perhaps this New Years Day reading can function for Christians as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, functions for our Jewish siblings: as “a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life… [moving from two days of celebration to] the Ten Days of Repentance, also known as the Days of Awe, which culminate in the major fast day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement”, the end of which is preparation for Sukkot. This ritualized round of celebration, followed by penitence, followed by celebration provides a healing cycle which highlights the joys of the past year, recognizes both personal and communal culpability in the past year’s grief and loss, and then celebrates God’s grace dissolving sins and washing them away.

Key concepts in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations are the intentionality and distinction between repentance for personal and communal sins. Christians – and ironically, Lutherans – have moved into a very individualized understanding of repentance, emphasizing “personal relationship” over a communal one. But our Lutheran liturgy provides an opportunity, in preparation for every worship gathering, to confess corporately, that is, as a body: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin…” We are complicit and apathetic to the wailing and lamentation in Ramah not only as individuals, but as a community. Could our communal repentance and enacted atonement, then, meet the communal wailing of Ramah, with at least the comfort of hope for a better future together?

The other essential lens for our Matthew text is that of the grieving community – and what clergy person is not serving a community steeped in lament, these days? For all the reasons listed above and more, our communities are weeping and lamenting deeply felt loss and grief.

The jubilant praise of all creation repeated over and over again in Psalm 148 then may be jarring.

But into this grief, the Prophet Isaiah (63:9) speaks words of comfort with the reminder: “It was no messenger or angel but God’s presence that saved them; in God’s love and pity God redeemed them; God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

How have you seen God carrying your community in these past days, weeks, months, years? How has grief been carried by the community as a whole, lightening the load for individuals? How has creation supported your grief process? How has God used nature to help move the community toward healing?

According to the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, “Physical activity in the form of a 40 minute walk in the forest was associated with improved mood and feelings of health and robustness.“ When individuals share their grief with the community, their individual burden is lightened. When communities share their grief with the landscape around them, might their burden, too, be lightened?

In some communities these questions will be easier to answer than in others. The praise and thanksgiving of Psalm 148 may remain elusive and something of a mystery in the face of communal sorrow. Yet biblically, emotionally, and psychologically, entering into creation’s rejoicing and praise are sound responses to grief.

We learn this and experience this with our siblings who grieve in New Orleans second line funerals. These brilliant, colorful, flamboyant celebrations of life begin with wailing and lament – then build into a celebration that is jubilant, exuberant, and exhaustively expressive of joy and thanksgiving. And these are not by chance or happenstance. Nicole Young, writing for Vox, quotes Cherice Harrison-Nelson, co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and a leader of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, saying, ‘“…cultural traditions don’t bubble up from the street like Jack and the Beanstalk…We go into our communities and we decide that we’re going to do something, a cultural expression that comes from our deep places to share in our community.” For Harrison-Nelson, “Culture is a language, cultural expression is a language. [My mother] said that people grieve in their mother tongue. The culture is our mother tongue.” So while second line funerals may be particular to New Orleans – and therefore not the ‘mother tongue’ in which all of us grieve – Young asserts that, “A regular celebration of this kind in communities across the country could serve as a reminder that while grief is persistent and cannot be diminished, it can be carried together. Communal grieving, funeral processions, collective altars and artwork allow us the time needed to pause and honor both the sadness and the light.”

How has God carried your community? How has God used nature to help move the community toward healing?

This past October I joined my Luther College classmates for Homecoming in Decorah, IA. Our 30th Reunion coincided with the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Luther’s Nordic Choir, for which choir alumni were invited to sing in a reunion choir. The piece chosen for this festival celebration was also observing an anniversary – the 100th year of F. Melius Christiansen’s Psalm 50. There we learned this story:

Dr. F. Melius Christiansen established the band and choral tradition at St. Olaf College – and the Lutheran a cappella choral tradition in America – by 1912. In 1922, his son, Carl, was killed in a tragic automobile accident, in which his wife was also severely burned. Christiansen fell into deep grief and absented himself from the St. Olaf campus completely for several weeks. The choirs began to wonder if this was the end of the fledgling choral experience. Then one day, out of the blue, choir members were all summoned to the rehearsal hall, where Christiansen introduced them to Psalm 50, composed in the weeks of his grief and isolation. The first movement is somber, but movements two and three are exultant, jubilant, glorifying and praising God, repeating the refrain, “Offer unto God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…”, then culminating in a rousing rendition of the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below…”), echoing Psalm 148 in both style and substance.

Somehow, in the weeks of his despair, F. Melius Christiansen had moved from a most horrible state of grief – the wailing and loud lamentation of Ramah – to offering unto God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and inviting all creation to join in praise for God’s abundant, flowing blessings. I believe it was by putting his grief into the voices of his community – his choir – that he could move through that grief to a sense of thanksgiving and then praise. In writing this piece of music, F. Melius Christiansen placed the burden of his grief into the safe and loving keeping of the choir that he loved – and which loved and grieved with him. In that safekeeping, Christiansen found such comfort that he was turned to profound gratitude and even joy.

When our grief is immense and experienced and felt as a community, it is perhaps too great for even our community to hold. Psalm 148 provides an opportunity to invite all of creation to be our choir, our jubilant parade. All of creation can hold the immense grief of these past years. All of creation will uphold our communities as we wail and lament. All of creation will sing and dance, rejoice and give praise and thanksgiving.

And if we are able to turn our grief over to the loving, sustaining embrace of the sun, moon, and stars, the waters and the sea monsters, the fire, wind, snow and frost, the mountains and the hills, the forests and the trees, the wild animals and the domesticated companions, the creeping things and flying birds – their unending chorus of miraculous praise – miraculous because creation, too, has known years of grief and lamentation at the slaughter of its own innocents – if we can let that eternal song of praise and thanksgiving hold us, embrace us, remind us that God is carrying us, then perhaps – like our Jewish siblings moving from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to Sukkot, like New Orleans second line funerals, like F. Melius Christiansen – somewhere in there we’ll find our own cultural language to express our own collective grief, and it will be turned by the song of creation from weeping and lamentation into praise and thanksgiving.

Thanks be to God, we do not carry our grief alone. We are surrounded by creation’s praise, which will hold us and carry us into this blessed New Year.

Originally written by Rev. Emily Meyer (ministrylab@unitedseminary.edu) in 2022 and published in the EcoFaith Network of Northeastern Minnesota and St Paul Area Synods’ Green Blades Rising Preacher’s Roundtable, December, 2022.

A video reflection based on Psalm 148 is available from The Ministry Lab. Learn more about it here .