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.
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
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.