In Periculo Mortis: Advent and the Danger of Death

Matthew 2:16-23 (NRSV)

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

I have a friend who was born in a Catholic children’s hospital. He was born with several birth defects, and was basically “set aside,” as he recalls from family history, by his doctors. An emergency baptism was performed by the chief chaplain and, immediately following the baptism, his last rites were given. A particular nurse cleaned him up and defended him. “Let’s give him a chance.” The chance indeed was given and he his alive and relatively well today. Though he experiences some physical ailments, he approaches life with joy and exuberance.

He tells this story when he can, ending with the fact that his baptismal certificate includes the phrase in periculo mortisin danger of death.

What a whirlwind of a birth! What a wild sense of physical and sacred time and space it is to be born and prepared to die in the same day. What a powerful reminder it is for this man to look back on his baptism, given in periculo mortis.

As the doctors, nurses, and family were frightened about the health of this man at birth, so were those in Jerusalem afraid and uncertain about a baby being born in Bethlehem. King Herod was, too – afraid of losing his crown and being challenged by an adversary-king. In a state of panic several young males in the region, two years of age and under, were killed at his command. Indeed, the Advent and Epiphany stories place Jesus and his family in periculo mortis. Joseph’s marriage to Mary was almost over before it started, save intervention by an angel of the Lord. Mary’s pregnancy at such an early age and through the Holy Spirit for a time may have been the death of her peace, and the arduous journey she made in what would have been the ninth month of her pregnancy must have challenged the health of her body. The family flees from Herod and, after Herod dies, his son Archelaus.

The family settles in Nazareth, a place whose inhabitants would one day crowd Jesus to the edge of a cliff in anger. A place from which Jesus would travel and engage in such table-flipping, Lazarus-raising, leper-touching activities that would cause most of his adult ministry to place him in periculo mortis.

Advent is not a tame season. It is not even, for a time anyway, a peaceful one. It is a season whose readings begin with fire and blood and smokey mist. It is a season that calls us not only to the birth of Christ, but to the Day of the Lord and the final victory, where we feast at Christ’s heavenly banquet. As Lent has lost meaningful fasting to Diet Coke and Hershey bars, so has Advent lost tension and sociopolitical upset to Advent calendars with candy waiting behind each frame – lost to twenty-eight days instead of forty-six with prayer and fasting (broken by that pink candle that really doesn’t need to be pink anymore if we aren’t going to fast and feast).

As silly as some may think it sounds, Advent has lost a little of its rough edges and danger of death.

What about our lives as followers of Jesus places aspects of our lives in periculo mortis? Our desire to self-gift; our desire to fill our pews with people who look just like us; our desire to say “We’ve built it – they should come;” our tendency to place ourselves at the center of what has become a truly consumerist, lavish holiday. Are we willing to die to selfishness and take on the mantle of selflessness, even if it means dying to ourselves?

In Christ’s advocacy for and action on behalf of those who needed it (indeed, for and on behalf of the created order) we have been challenged to do the same – to engage in such discipleship and service that places us, or at least parts of us, in danger of death with the promise of new life. If we follow Jesus from the mountain of transfiguration to the cross in the season of Lent, we should also ride the rough road with Mary and Joseph to Christ’s birth and live in anticipation of the final victory.

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