Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Holy Innocents In The Shadow Of The Cross

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Holy Innocents by William Charles Thomas Dobson

The Festival of the Holy Innocents is never an easy day on which to preach; its subject matter can be unsettling and difficult to broach. However, the connections between the nativity and the cross are worth exploring. Readings: Matthew 2:13-18 , Jeremiah 31:15-17

This morning’s readings are not the easiest for us to hear for many reasons. The subjects are in stark contrast to the glad tidings and joy of Jesus’ birth. Although the things written about are actually separated by several months from this event, this year it is only three days, since we left the miraculous birth of Christ, represented so often in bucolic Christmas Card nativity scenes with the glowing lantern-lit stable, tranquil Holy Family, rosy-cheeked cherubs  and fluffy sheep – only to be suddenly faced with the horrors of death.

For many people it’s easy to accept at face value the story of the Nativity, there’s nothing that feels threatening about the story, despite the subtle intimation of the Magi’s gift of myrrh, but even that’s saved for next week. It is a happy event, yet Matthew’s gospel reveals a baby who is apparently considered so much of a threat to the region’s most powerful man that he kills a whole village of babies in order to try to get rid of him. This Jesus he had heard about was interfering with Herod’s ambitions.

However, we should not be surprised by Herod’s murderous intentions. He was a past master of assassination. No sooner had he come to the throne than he began annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, slaughtering 300 court officers out of hand.  He also murdered his wife Marianne, his mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater and two other sons Alexander and Aristobulus.

Even at the hour of his death he wanted to arrange the killing of the leading citizens of Jericho. Consequently, initiating the slaughter of 20-30 babies would not have been out of character, and would not have really caused much of a stir in a land rife with murders – except to their heart-broken mothers.

Throughout the whole of history, malevolent tyrants have used their power to remove any perceived threat to their authority.  We only have to recall over the last few months, the persecution and brutal execution of Christians, including children, in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State, with its strong resonances to the story of the Holy Innocents; and even more recently, the massacre of 132 children in Peshawar, Pakistan by Taliban militants. All of them innocent, all of them offering no obvious threat to their evil killers, simply murdered because of a misconceived sense of a potential future threat.

Being innocent is not the same as being in the wrong place at the wrong time – they were all in their rightful places, at home with their families, in places of trust such as schools – what then do we imagine it was like when the soldiers burst in and tore the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers or when terrified children look up only to be met by a hail of bullets as they frantically tried to escape.

The death of innocent victims always taps into our basic emotions – but the death of a child touches us deep within. For example, although I have never personally been to any of the Nazi concentration camps, I have seen the evidence in films and books. However, my daughter Ruth, after a trip to Auschwitz, told me that it wasn’t the sophistication of the gas chamber showers, or the ovens and chimneys that caused her to have a lump in her throat; it was the neatly stacked pile of children’s shoes that finally broke her heart at the poignancy of it all.

The poignancy of children's shoes in Auschwitz

The poignancy of children’s shoes in Auschwitz

All these deaths go against our perceived proper order of things – that children grow up, become the next generation of adults and have children of their own. What does become clear then is that if people can be ungodly then they can also be inhumane and that whenever the truth and goodness of God are seen, then a backlash of evil is provoked and innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

So despite the cosiness of the nativity story it is more accurate to recall that Jesus was also recognised as Immanuel, meaning ‘God with Us’. That he was born not to home comforts, but to endure pain, suffering and injustice just like the people to whom he came. He came to show this world the way of love; the way of peace; the way of justice.

He showed us how we should live and act during our time on earth, by cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, like kindness, faithfulness and self-control; but he was not equipping us for this life but for the next. His birth already had signs of the more significant part of his life – his death.

Because of this, his story can bring comfort to all who go through the unbearable agony of the death of a child or those who suffer because of human cruelty, since they are redeemable and redeemed, because Jesus is the ultimate innocent victim, his death on the cross conquering over the uttermost depths of sin and evil

The Shadow of the Cross Across The Manger

The star may continue to shine in the sky but the shadow of the cross falls across the whole story

Jeremiah’s prophecy is referring to God’s covenant to bring the Babylonian exiles back –  and that although Israel must weep and mourn, rescue is on its way. In the same way Jesus brings deliverance even when everything seems bleak and hopeless. Jesus has been born as the bearer of God’s salvation.  Thus a new exodus is begun and continued through the death of the Holy Innocents – it is looking forward to the last day when Christ will establish his kingdom and God will make everything new. We weep with the parents and families but God will turn this mourning into joy  and gladness and we have to hold on to this hope.

We also have to remember that God is not responsible for the massacre this was not a prophecy to fulfil a purpose, but a prophecy that had been fulfilled. It is Herod, who is fully aware of the threat Jesus poses that perpetrates these atrocities, or who more accurately despatches his soldiers to carry them out.

What of the soldiers who simply ‘obeyed orders?’ Could we sometimes be like them, when we collude with evil by not intentionally standing against it , when we look on as child sex traffickers, exploiters of street children or dictators who use hunger as a political weapon and thereby allow the innocent to suffer – surely these are situations to which the church, both with a big and a small ‘C’ must loudly proclaim ‘No’ to the world.

In rapid and dramatic contrast to ‘the glory all around’ of Christmas, Jesus takes his place where so many of his children live and there should the church, his body, always be. Though death attends his birth, his own death will declare that death is never the answer in spite of every Herod’s belief. His presence amidst life’s direst need and his triumph over life’s adversary are the birth of hope for his followers in all times, places and circumstances.

This is where the story of love incarnate leads. For the Holy innocents their deaths are part of the sacrifice of Christ for the whole human race. Therefore, all can be hopeful who die innocently – innocent victims of war, terror, natural disaster, cruelty, accident, abuse, oppression – these are not wasted lives!

Christ’s story mirrors their stories – he suffered innocently, died prematurely, but took on and defeated death itself and so holds the keys to life. The face of Jesus, shines out from the crib and shows us not only the glory of God, but is a vision of hope and love for us today.

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt

He Sang A Love Song To The Earth

Advent Wreath blog

The watching and waiting are nearly over

As Advent draws to a close and the Advent calendar chocolates are nearly all eaten, we approach the climax to our Christmastide celebrations. We’ve watched and we’ve waited… for what?

  • We’ve watched as greed and consumerism cheapens the meaning of a gift.
  • We’ve waited to hear the Good News amongst the stories of abuse and exploitation.
  • We’ve watched as helpless innocents are slaughtered by false religion.
  • We’ve waited to hear the angels sing above the cacophony of self-interest.
An almost emptly Advent calendar

An almost emptly Advent calendar

These are certainly not the things we still watch and wait for; they’re the result of ignoring the very thing that was revealed so many years in a message of love and hope for the whole world. For somewhere out there in the darkness, a child was assuredly being born to a surrogate mother; his paternity in question; his homelife unsecure and his future seemingly uncertain; and yet his message was simple… love God; love yourself; love each other. Only then will we truly be able to celebrate Christmas for what it really is.

 He Sang A Love Song To The Earth

He sang a love song to the earth,
and the seraphim in joyous trembling
heard words so sweet and clear;
as in radiant host they swept the skies
to bring good news to a waiting world
that lay so dark and drear.

Within a shroud of blackest night,
pierced by a woman’s cry,
an infant babe, slipped into life;
the godhead veiled in flesh.
and darkness swaying mesmerised,
retreated from the dazzling light.

Yet still among the silent streets
rang out creation’s babel sounds;
deafening those who strained to hear
the messengers divine; who joined
the lullaby his mother sang,
now echoing through the air

Do we, like them, refuse to hear
its simple melody. A song of peace,
a song of joy; if we could only see
the human face behind our fears,
the love amidst the hate;
the Christ child born in everyone
His song to set us free.


The Angels Echoing The Song

Wishing you all a Joyous, Peaceful and Blessed Christmas!

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Not the cheeriest subject for this time of year – or any time of the year really, but a weekend’s training, curtailed somewhat into an intensive one-day session due to an outbreak of Norovirus at college, saw us gathering on a very cold and frosty morning in Diocesan Church House, Oxford to contemplate our own and other’s mortality and our responses, as part of our pastoral training.

Having to face death is part and parcel of being a priest; the initial contact to the bereaved, the nuts and bolts of organising a funeral service and the continuing pastoral support to all those affected are skills that can be taught but that can only be developed, unfortunately, through practice, which is always at the expense of someone’s grief.

We may therefore have expertise, but we will never truly be experts. So, hard as we might wish to, we can never honestly say that we know exactly what someone is going through or what they are feeling, as each person’s experience of the death of a loved one is unique. What we can do is to come alongside the bereaved, not shying away because we fear we’ll get it wrong and make things worse, but offering to listen or just to sit in the silence,

Gravestones blogAnd I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away’
Revelation 21:3-4

Accepting the reality of death for many people can be particularly hard and there are many euphemisms that are used to try to alleviate the finality of human life. Phrases such as the deceased having ‘passed away’ or ‘gone into the darkness’. Believing that they’ve ‘become a star’ or ‘gone to a better place, to be with Jesus or Granny’ etc. are all quite commonplace. Humour also features in sayings such as the cockney rhyming slang ‘brown bread’ for dead or ‘sleeping with the fishes’ with it’s undertones of Mafia involvement. It’s also interesting to discover the origin of some of these phrases; for example ‘kicked the bucket’ actually refers to the grotesque history of lynch mobs standing their victims on upturned buckets, which were then kicked away, or the more practical ‘popped their clogs,’ where the Lancastrian meaning of ‘popped’ equates to ‘pawned,’ so that in order to afford the funeral, the deceased’s family would place their clogs in hock until they could afford to redeem them!

However, death is a reality and needs to be faced, and as Christians we have something that offers a unique reassurance – a hope for the future. When we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ – a euphemism courtesy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – we look to Christ’s promise of eternal life. Just how that will look can differ enormously depending on your theology; but one beautifully imaginative description of what this might be comes at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, a book that is often considered an allegory of the Book of Revelation.

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before

Out of death comes life - tiny cyclamens planted in the graveyard

Out of death comes life – tiny cyclamens in the graveyard

It was also important that we contemplated our own mortality so that we could become aware of our own thoughts and understanding about death because no-one is immune to the physical and emotional aspects of grief. Time spent in reflection enabled us to work through these attitudes in order that we can be better placed in the future to support those who will rely on us doing our ‘job’  both professionally and pastorally.

What is clear in all of this is that when death is not the end of life then death takes on a whole new meaning however it occurs

Death Comes

Death comes out of the shadows,
padding with stealthy footsteps;
like a thief in the night
to steal away life’s breath.

Death comes tumbling on the wind,
choking with gritty determination;
like a sudden desert sandstorm,
to obliterate hope and dreams.

Death comes with iron jaws,
lurking among the undergrowth;
like a hidden gin,
to bind and snare.

Death comes after sentence quashed,
counting the endless days;
like a prisoner of conscience ,
to bring welcome release.

Death comes in the shape of a cross,
sacrificing innocence;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
to redeem and bless humanity.

Grave Flowers blog