The second reading for the First Sunday of Christmas in this year of Matthew is clearly chosen to give further testimony to the pain and suffering so palpable in the story of the Massacre of the Innocents that only the Gospel of Matthew tells.
But even before the account of the slaughter of the first born in Bethlehem, the holy family is forced to flee to Egypt. That is, early on in the story of Jesus we realize that Jesus' life and ministry which gives hope and blessing to so many will be fraught with the ever present human reality of pain and suffering.
As a result, one lens through which to view the reading from Hebrews in the context of the deaths of the first born in Bethlehem is through verse 14, "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things." The word translated "share" in "the children share flesh and blood" is in the perfect tense. That is, the writer of Hebrews witnesses to the fact the human condition of flesh and blood is the constant human situation. The verb points to the completed event implicit in the perfect tense, the incarnation, but also to the ongoing reality of the perfect tense, the lasting condition of the sharing of what it means to be human. That Jesus "shared" (aorist tense) in this reality, as incarnated, is a theme that is played out over and over again in Hebrews (e.g., 4:14-16).
Prior to the lection chosen for today, verses 5-9 also give witness to Jesus' solidarity with the human plight. In doing so, however, it is not only a matter of Jesus' mutual solidarity with humanity. Heard in the context of the Matthew text, and knowing the reality of Jesus' future ministry, it is promise in the midst of the inevitability and apparent victory of suffering and death. Through Jesus' death, death itself, even the fear of death, will be destroyed.
The reading for today finds its restatement and fulfillment in 12:1-2 with the repeated terms, pioneer and perfecter. The term for pioneer (archegos) can be translated "leader," "author," "originator," or "founder," but also has the sense of "one who begins something."1 It is helpful to note that the semantic root of this word is arche or beginning, such as "in the beginning" (see Genesis 1:1; John 1:1). The term perfecter (teleiotes) has its roots in the verb teleioo which means to bring to completion or to bring to something to its intended goal.
In the context of 12:2, "Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," there is a sense that when it comes to our belief in Jesus, Jesus himself is its beginning and its end, its alpha and omega, so to speak. In the reading for this Sunday, Jesus is the one who begins our salvation, who leads us into that salvific reality because of his life and death. The use of the term "made perfect" in 2:10 suggests that part of what salvation means, includes, and necessitates, is suffering. It will certainly be true when it comes to the interpretation of Jesus' death.
But what does this mean for how we negotiate this relationship between suffering and salvation? Is suffering necessary for our salvation? Was it true for Jesus? Is it true for us? Or rather, is the author of Hebrews reminding us of what we can so easily forget? That to be human is to know suffering in all of its manifestations. And, that to be children of God is to believe that Jesus knows our suffering in all of its possible realizations.
As a result, another other primary theme in this passage from Hebrews, especially on the Sunday after Christmas, is its restatement of the incarnation and its interpretation. That is, how can this passage from Hebrews help our parishioners reimagine what the birth of Jesus can mean? Put in conversation with the story of Jesus' birth according to Luke, the letter to the Hebrews plays out the meaning of the incarnation for our ongoing life of faith. As one commentator notes, "No New Testament writer takes the humanity of Jesus Christ more seriously or more purposefully than does the author of Hebrews."2
Jesus shares humanity with us "in every respect" (2:17). There is a radical understanding of the incarnation here that perhaps offers a helpful corrective to the sentimentalizing of Jesus in the manger. In many respects, Hebrews helps us imagine and re-language the reality of post-Christmas, the ongoing realities and challenges of the human situation to which God in the baby Jesus has committed God's self.
1 BAGD 112
2Fred B. Craddock, Hebrews, New Interpreter's Bible (43).