First Sunday after Christmas, Year A.
In the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer & the Sustainer. Amen.
Today marks the so-called 'Feast' of the Innocents, a Christian day of remembrance dating back to the 5th century, honoring the memory of slaughtered babies in Bethlehem. Our Gospel reading from Matthew reminds us of this heart wrenching and dreadful story, one which most of us could do without, at least I could. Today's Gospel narrative is just brimming over with Christmas joy, isn't it? Well, not exactly, let's face it, not at all. We read of the holy family, having just received the gift of a precious newborn, being warned miraculously by an angel to flee into Egypt as Herod is seeking to kill their child. The story tells us of Joseph's obedience to the angel's command as he whisks the family away, tragically, leaving behind all the other infant males in Bethlehem to be killed. In case we are not scratching our heads already with confusion and bewilderment, Matthew continues to tell us this entire event was to: fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." Now we should just be plain angry. All this “hell on earth” is to satisfy some prophecy and nothing else! In the midst of Christmas, a season of love, joy, peace and goodwill toward all people, we are suddenly confronted with the possibility that God allowed young children to be slain and chose only to save one special baby.
We might, at this point, decide to comfort ourselves by asking some questions. Perhaps, we would ask how many were slaughtered? It depends on who you ask and which tradition you follow. The Byzantine churches would tell you 14,000 were dealt their death. The Syrian church claim 64,000 and, if you dare ask, the Coptic churches claim 144,000 were silenced in one fateful night. Modern day Roman Catholic theologians help our nerves to calm slightly by telling us, based upon Bethlehem's population of 1,000, there would have only been 20 infants slain, at most. Well, maybe that's bearable. Has holiday joy returned?
No? Then let's ask another question, one that is sure to bring peace once again during this holiday season. Could there have been a deeper purpose? Maybe those holy innocents were given the ultimate blessing of being the very first martyrs of the soon to appear Christian faith. We wouldn't be the first to grasp at this possibility. Many churches revere the infants as martyrs who paved the way for Jesus to remain safe, who gave up their lives in order to help us accept Jesus as the Messiah and who were honored to be chosen by God and therefore immortalized. If this is starting to make it all seem good, I want to ask you to consider this. How many times between the age of newborn and three years old did you consider the gift it would be to have a sword bludgeon you to death for God's great plan? I dare presume that most of you never thought in such terms, and if you did we will have a special prayer for you following the service.
Now breathe deeply…I am here to tell you that you have no need to reconcile this story with a God of love or with the historical birth of the one we call Lord. It isn't a historical account but rather an attempt of Matthew to further prove the messiahship of Jesus. The slaughter of the innocents is not recorded in any of the historical documents from the period nor do the Gospels agree on its factual existence and even the remainder of the biblical timelines don't allow for its occurrence. Matthew is doing his best to draw parallels between Jesus and highly revered deliverer Moses. Remember, back in the book of Exodus, a very similar event happened when Moses was born? The Jewish people had very specific ways in which they expected the messiah to appear on earth and they believed that Moses was a prototype of what the messiah would be. Hence, it was only natural to seek out ways in which to more clearly demonstrate that Jesus was the one whom everyone had waited for.
Please, before you decide to go crazy on Matthew understand this was not an uncommon practice during the era this Gospel was composed, which was about a 100 years after Jesus' birth, yes I said a hundred years. There is even a word for it, midrash. It was a common tactic in writing to help exemplify a certain belief or point by liberally using prophecy, legend, lore and miraculous events to drive home an idea. A theological “fill in the blank.” We are guilty of doing it ourselves, we are often great at exaggerating a story to prove a point or being carefree with certain forgotten facts. Granted our modern sense of political correctness stops us from reaching such absurd and heartless peaks as Matthew did. However, we aren't here to judge Matthew but to ask, if this story isn't factual, then why is the church continuing to read it aloud, especially during this time of year? We might also ask what deeper truth is this passage attempting to convey in order that we might apply it to our own lives? These are two important questions to ask and the ones I will attempt to shed light on, with God's help.
Although, I am an ardent supporter of a historical and critical approach to the Bible, I believe every single word of Scripture serves a purpose and can open our eyes to the Divine. Honestly, I must admit I was very excited to preach this morning until I saw the Gospel reading and then I said, “God, what have I done to deserve this?” So with a cup of tea in hand I began to mull over the words not from a literalist perspective trying to reconcile the irreconcilable but to see what blessed hope God wants us to find in this passage on the first Sunday of Christmas.
I believe we hear this narrative read aloud in the midst of our Christmas joy because we serve a God who is not far removed and distant from us. Rather our God walks with us and experiences life as one of us. We serve and are served by a God who acknowledges the incredible amount of death, pain and fear that we are confronted with constantly. Today’s Gospel is a reminder of this reality for we are allowed to come face to face with all these gritty emotions in the midst of what is considered to be the most wonderful time of the year. Many of us carry wounds and pains that are equal to that of Rachel crying out in Bethlehem. We often find ourselves crying out because many of the situations we have faced in life seem equally inconsolable and beyond help.
Our lives tend not to be unending production of candy canes, jolly plump men, twinkling lights and buffets with exorbitant amounts of food. No, life is often made up of deep wounds, unanswered questions, loss and downright misery. Life could easily become unbearable but we, as Christians, find hope in the knowledge that we serve a God who experienced all of these feelings, hardships and emotions with us. A God who walked in the flesh, who breathed air, who witnessed the death of loved ones and the state abuse of his own people. A God who ultimately felt the pain of his own death and knew what it was like to be abandoned by everyone who was once trusted and called friend. A God who is truly one of us and yet proved even in the midst of colossal upheaval it is still possible to love fully and completely with his famous words spoken from the cross, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is the beauty of Christmas, the beauty of the incarnation…God is one of us. The narrative of the massacre already calls us to think head to the brutal slaying of Jesus and reminds us of the innocence in this world that is frequently met with hatred, fear and a sword.
With a careful reading of today’s passage we might find the answer to our second question: what deeper meaning is to be found in this narrative. The answer might be one we don’t care for much…the realization of the reality that we are all guilty of being Herod at certain points in our lives. How often in life do we cause massacre, or at least allow it, through selfishness, fear, neglect or lack of care. Perhaps we have never raised a sword against another but how many times have our words caused deep scars? Have we ever caused another to cry out in pain because we refused to allow them comfort, or have we ever been so busy with our own agendas we never considered the end result of our maniacal road to success and possession? Yes, today we find ourselves despising the idea of a man daring to slay innocent humans beings but perhaps we should quit casting guilt; and look into our own hearts and find those times we have been guilty of spiritual, mental or emotional death.
With a deeper reading into this passage and the narrative surrounding it we come to understand that Herod was not so much bloodthirsty for the death of children as he was horrified of the notion of anything being different, new or not according to his own plan. Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century, does record for us a factual event telling us that Herod once had three of his own children put to death because he worried they might try to overthrow his kingdom. If we are an honest people, many of us would admit that deep inside we are horrified of change, the unpredictable or the thought that anyone could ‘outdo’ us in this life. We oftentimes find our complete self worth not in giving or loving but rather in being the best, the only, the greatest. Herod’s nature is oftentimes found living in our very own hearts, sometimes in a small way and sometimes in a big way.
On an international level we see Herod in the anti-gay laws of Uganda and India. Nationally, we find Herod in the racism and homophobic rhetoric spewed forth by certain reality TV stars. We see Herod in the unnecessary starvation which impacts not only third world countries but millions of children here in our own nation. We recognize a fearful Herod seeking to kill and destroy personal freedoms and the advancement of science, under the guise of so called "traditional morality and Biblical mandates."
The true Christian journey is an acceptance of Christ’s command to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. In order to truly walk in this radical version of ultimate love we must frequently pause and examine ourselves and our motives. This isn’t necessarily a fun task nor a desirable one but is undeniably valuable if we wish to be one with God, just as Jesus is.
In case, you feel this is far from the course and I am simply being difficult, or you believe the nature of Herod never creeps into your own life, let me share a confession with you. When Andrew and I first moved in together I had very strong notions of exactly how our home should look. After all, I have had years of interior design experience and frankly believed that I could do it better. It caused us more than a few battles and sadly to this day has made Andrew to somewhat feel that he isn’t living in his own house. Now, is this the slaughter of a child? No. However, it was and has continued to be my own thirst for control, belief of perfection and fear of anything new that has limited the joy of one I love deeply. I am working on this, I have improved some, but I still have a little Herod in me too.
We all have situations in our lives where we forget the commandment to love and it often seems we won’t stop at anything to get our way. Today, let us each take a moment to seek out these areas where we slay innocence and begin to love inclusively instead. In the midst of holiday cheer, silver bells and roasting chestnuts God asks us to pause and recognize the unending hurt and pain that continues in this world, to consider the ways in which we can help to bring solace, healing, joy and lift others up. Just as Christ, we are called to free those who live in fear of death and all forms of distress. For some of us this might simply mean calling a relative or a neighbor and offering words of peace, for another it might mean becoming a public advocate for social justice and freedom. The greatest gift, regardless of our calling in life, is to remember that we do not have to take on this task alone:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
“He is Emmanuel, God with us.”