January 1 | Expecting Emmanuel: Weeping Mothers

Scripture | John 1:1-5; Matthew 2:16-18
Sermon | “Does not wisdom (Sophia) cry out?”
Sermon by Carolyn May

Good morning and happy new year. Last week, after the anticipation of advent, we celebrated together the birth of Jesus. The holy one enfleshed. Though Advent is over, this is the final week of our Advent series. Rather than having one woman to speak about, I had the option of choosing to reflect with you on three different women: Anna, a fiercely faithful prophet who encounters Jesus in the temple when he was taken to be dedicated, the weeping mothers of the innocent children killed by Herod, and Sophia, wisdom personified and often understood as the feminine counterpart of Jesus. I’m not too good at decisions though so I didn’t choose one and instead will be touching a bit on all of these.

For ages there has been a pervasive belief that women are naturally more emotional than men. Obviously a universal claim without factual basis and a claim that has been harmful to all. Not only have women been deemed more emotional, but women have also often been told they are “too emotional.”  This has been looked upon as a negative thing. Women have historically been denied positions of power and simply have not been taken as seriously as their male counterparts because of this belief that their emotions get in the way. Over the past several weeks, throughout the advent season, we have encountered women in biblical stories who have demonstrated wit, bravery, and loyalty. These women have challenged the narrative that a woman is too emotional to be useful or effective. Each of the women we’ve looked at over the course of this series played a significant, even vital role, in the incarnation, in the birth of Jesus. Today we look again to women who challenge the false dichotomy between wisdom and emotion. And we do this even by looking to Wisdom herself.

Our first reading today was from John 1. John’s gospel doesn’t have a classic nativity narrative like the rest of the gospels. This is the closest we get: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning and through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of all humankind.” The Greek word used for “word” is Logos which means wisdom, reasoning, it is the Divine Expression. Logos is the masculine version of this word, its feminine counterpart is Sophia. It’s likely that John uses the masculine version of the word to really highlight the fact that he understands Logos, Wisdom, to be Jesus himself. But the words in this first chapter of John are basically  an echo of the words found in Proverbs 8. Starting in verse 22 we read, “The Lord had me at the beginning of their work, the first of God’s acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains, before the hills, before the earth with its fields or the skies above, I was there. I was beside God and I was daily God’s delight.” Wisdom continues saying, “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from God. But the one who fails to find me injures themself; all who hate me love death.” Here the one present at the beginning of time–existing alongside the Creator–is the Hebrew word Chokmah, the feminine word for Wisdom. In Greek, Sophia. We read at the beginning of Proverbs 8 that Wisdom cries out, raising her voice, walking in the paths of justice. Theologian Elaine Wainwright, reflecting on Proverbs 8, notes that this song of Sophia “invites us to encounter [her] at play everywhere in the world, delighting to be among the human family.” But Wainwright writes, “we need also to be aware that Sophia would weep at human destruction of creation.” She states, “We can imagine that the voice of Sophia, the one who was there before the oldest of God’s works, might be lamenting in our time.”

I’ve been spending Advent reflecting on the connection between Wisdom, Sophia, and weeping such as that we encounter in our other reading from Matthew 2. Perhaps not the clearest connection or the most straightforward. But I think there is a connection between Wisdom who cries out against evil, this Sophia who would weep at human destruction of creation, and the weeping of mothers who cry out in grief and for justice.

In Matthew 2, we read that after being tricked by the wise men, a furious and fearful Herod commands all male children under two years old be killed. He was so concerned about the threat this little baby Jesus posed to his reign that he orchestrated what is known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” In this passage Matthew states that this occurrence fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy which said, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now Jeremiah was prophesying at the cusp of the Babylonian exile. Rachel’s weeping was, in Jeremiah, to be for the Israelites who would be forcibly removed from their homeland and relocated to an unfamiliar place. In Genesis we learn that Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph with the colorful coat and his brother Benjamin, died after giving birth to Benjamin. In her final breath she names her baby boy Benoni meaning “My Sorrow’s Son.” After her death Jacob has Rachel buried on the road to Ephrath, the road to Bethlehem. In the Jewish tradition Jacob had her buried here rather than in Israel where he would eventually be buried because he foresaw the exile of his descendants into Babylon and knew that they would pass by her grave. Jeremiah prophesies that as they pass her grave she will come out and will weep and lament for her children. In Jeremiah where this prophecy is initially found, the words “she refused to be comforted because they are no more” are immediately followed by the voice of the Lord essentially saying, “stop weeping. I hear you. Your work will be rewarded and your descendants, your children, will return safely to their land.”

In writing about our reading from Matthew, Pastor Pam Fickenscher notes that, “Rachel’s weeping occupies a key turning point in Jeremiah, when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to promises of hope. Matthew, in turn,” she writes, “invokes Rachel in the midst of this story of the God-with-us, the birth of a child whose name is a verb: save. God’s salvation may seem far off and inadequate to the mothers who mourn, but the promise is deeper than this moment in time.” By drawing on the words of Jeremiah, Matthew accentuates the ongoing role of Rachel’s weeping and her advocacy for the Israelites. Rachel’s tears are connected here to the tears of the mothers, who by this cruel decree from Herod, unjustly lost their sons.

Joanna Harader, author of Expecting Emmanuel, the book our Advent series has been based on, aptly writes, “These ancient mothers are kin to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who mourned their ‘disappeared’ children and demanded that the dictator return their children to them alive…[they are] kin to enslaved African mothers whose children were ripped from their arms and sold to strangers. They are kin to Indigenous mothers whose children were taken from them and sent to white schools, where many of them were abused and even killed. They are kin to Black and Indigenous mothers in the United States today, whose infants face unconscionable mortality rates, whose young adult children-particularly their sons–are too often imprisoned,” and I’ll add killed, “unjustly.” Rachel’s tears have been flowing through the ages and continue to flow today through the eyes of all mothers who have had to grieve the loss of their children.

Rather than dismissing this raw emotion, this weeping and loud lamentation, God hears Rachel. And I believe God hears the cries of all mourning mothers. God hears our weeping. Women have often been the voice of Wisdom through the ages. They have been intercessors, advocating for justice, fighting for what is right. And these women, through their advocacy, through their wisdom, through their weeping, have helped things shift. In my work as a chaplain, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that there are no words that can ease immense grief. I think the wisdom of Rachel is in the very act of weeping, grieving, lamenting.

Okay, I told you I’d bring in all three choices I had to this message. We’ve touched on Sophia and we’ve spent a little time with the weeping mothers. Here is Anna’s piece. While in the temple for Jesus’ presentation, a righteous and devout man named Simeon approaches the family and tells Mary that “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. He looks at Mary and says, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The text states that “at that moment” Anna, an old widow who spends all her time fasting and praying at the temple, approaches the family thanking God for the gift that is Jesus. Joana Harader notes that Simeon’s words are true but heavy. Simeon was speaking truth to Mary as she did become a woman who lost her child to state sanctioned violence. Surely it felt as if a sword pierced her soul. But Anna spoke truth as well, I think. We don’t know exactly what she said, but Anna’s words and presence Harader suggests provides “not just gender balance, but theological balance.” Yes there is, there will be, weeping and pain and grief. There is also reason to be grateful. There is redemption. There is new life. One thing does not negate the other.

The prelude we heard today of “Silent Night” sung alongside the reading of devastating news headlines does a similar thing, I think. It speaks to the reality that in the midst of pain and grief, holiness is still present. The amazing thing about the birth of Christ, about the incarnation, about the reality of Emmanuel–God with us–is that Jesus didn’t come to dwell in heavenly peace. He came as a poor refugee child, to live in the midst of the chaos and devastation.

I don’t have a pretty bow to tie this all up with because that’s not the point, I don’t think. Everything is messy and entangled. God is present in the midst of that. The weeping of mothers throughout time, the eternal presence of Sophia in the world, the thanksgiving of Anna in the aftermath of a devastating prophecy. It all exists at the same time. But as we venture into this new year, I pray that those who weep might know they do not weep alone and that their weeping is powerful and it is heard by God. I pray that those longing for peace and justice might have the courage and strength to work towards it, always maintaining a sense of hope, especially when things feel hopeless. And that those who, like Anna, encounter long awaited good news might be filled with overflowing gratitude. In the midst of whatever is to come may we know that she who has existed before all else continues to dwell in our midst, guiding us toward life.