Tag Archives: Magi

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

It’s Called Christmas For A Reason – The Wise Men’s Story

The Wise Men Came Travelling

The Wise Men Came Travelling

Originally written for a Messy Church service storytelling slot to celebrate Epiphany

I want to tell you the story of three men who decided to leave their comfortable homes and travel a very long distance in search of…..well at the beginning they weren’t entirely sure what or who it was they were searching for? They just knew that it was so important that they set out on a new adventure.

Some people called them wise men…but I’m not so sure they were very wise to consider going on such a journey …at least not at the start. Others call them kings… In fact only one of them was a king and his name was Balthazar. He was a very kind king and looked after his wives and servants very well. His life was extremely comfortable, because he could afford to buy anything he wanted. The trouble was he had bought everything that he wanted and now he was bored!

He was also very intelligent and liked to try and find out everything about the world around him. He read loads of books and his favourite subject was history. However, he was not as clever as his best friend Melchior, who was indeed a wise man. Melchior, was also very rich and so he could spend all of his time studying the stars. That is he looked up at them at night and watched them as they moved across the sky, and during the day when the sun hid the stars he plotted their movements on his charts. Whenever Balthazar went to visit his friend he had to try and find him behind a mountain of papyrus rolls

Also living in the city was another man called Caspar, who was also a friend of the king. He was a man who thought a lot about the world – about how it was created; about who created it; about why it was created; about why he had been created! He had read all of the ancient scriptures of lots of different faiths and had come to the conclusion that there must have been a very powerful God who had done all of these things

One day Melchior, rushed into the palace when Caspar was visiting Balthazar. He was very excited and told them both to come and see what he had discovered. He spread out a large chart on the table in front of them and pointed to a small object that was separate from all of the other stars.

“I noticed it the other night…I’m sure it wasn’t there the night before! Come and see it for yourselves.

They all went back to Melchior’s house and waited…..and waited….and waited. Actually they had to wait for quite some time as it had been lunch time when Melchior had rushed to the palace and the sun needed to set before the stars would be visible…

Eventually though, when the night was very dark, they saw an incredible sight…. on the skyline a bright light was shining… it was brighter than all the other stars and seemed to twinkle and sparkle as if it was waiting for them to make a decision.

“I think I know what this means,” said Caspar, “I read about a star appearing in the sky when God wants to send a message to the world”

Balthazar and Melchior wondered how a star was going to tell them a message. Stars can’t talk after all.  But they did notice that the way the star hovered over them it seemed to be saying ‘Follow me’ before it disappeared as the sun rose. Over the next few days they kept on seeing the star and each night it seemed to flicker more brightly and urgently.

Eventually they came to a decision. Caspar had reread one of the ancient books and declared that the stars appearance was because a very, very special person had been born…a prince or a king!

Melchior said that the star was moving very slowly westward, so perhaps that was where it had happened. Balthazar just thought it was the chance for a great adventure and began making plans for a journey…. and because he wasn’t sure how long that journey was going to be he packed lots of things, including gifts for whoever they were going to meet…after all it’s only polite to take a present when you go visiting.

The three men travelled for many months and days through the desert. They tended to sleep during the day when the sun was at its hottest and then set out again as the sun set and the stars began to appear; and every night the brightest star in the sky seemed to lead them onward into new lands, never stopping. Even when it was a cloudy night the light seems to glow through the clouds so that they could see where it was.

Then one day they were sleeping in their tents when some men entered their camp. They told Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar that they were King Herod’s guards and that their master would like to welcome them to his country, so they were escorted to the palace of King Herod

Now King Herod wasn’t a very nice king. He was greedy and cruel and extremely jealous of anyone who threatened his power. None of his own people were ever allowed to see him. Only the important people were allowed into his palace. So we’ve got to stay outside…

…However, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar were allowed in. King Herod seemed very friendly to his three visitors. Apparently he asked them lots of questions about their journey, about how they had got there and where they were going. Melchior, who was very excited about how the star had led them on their journey, told Herod about his discovery and Caspar tried to explain that they were looking for a very important person, possibly a new king… Balthazar just felt uneasy.

After a while, despite all the splendour and luxury of the palace, the three men thought it would be wise to continue on their way. Especially as the star had moved on – and they had to spend three or four nights travelling very swiftly to catch up with it. King Herod had made them promise to let him know when they found the new king, so that he could come to welcome him. Balthazar thought that was one promise he really didn’t want to keep, and had kept his fingers crossed behind his back when he said they would!

After a few more days they approached the town of Bethlehem. They were only expecting to top up their food supplies and allow their camels some rest, as the city was not very grand – there were no majestic palaces, or magnificent houses within its walls; only ordinary houses, in ordinary streets. Yet the star seems to be hovering right over the town, as if it had come to a stop.

As they made their way through the twisting and winding streets, they kept asking themselves was this the place? Surely not! Yet the star was right there in the sky above them and was shedding its light onto a particularly small, very plain looking house. The three men stood in front of the wooden door

“You knock,” said Caspar

“No, you knock,” replied Melchior

“Oh for goodness sake, I’ll knock,” sighed Balthazar, as he rapped very smartly on the door. At the sound of the knock, a woman’s voice from within the house bid them to come in and so they entered the house.

At first it seemed very gloomy, then they made out a young woman sitting on a stool, with a child on her knee. Maybe it was the light from the star, or maybe it was the candle but the room seemed to glow with light and all three men fell down on their knees as they felt the presence of someone very special. It may not have been a palace, there may not have been hundreds of servants or furniture of gold and silver, but there was definitely someone royal there – a future king.

Balthazar then remembered the presents that they had brought and he laid down his gift of gold – certainly fit for a king! Melchior had some frankincense, which would be useful if he turned out to be a great priest and teacher. When Caspar hesitantly laid his gift of myrrh in front of the cradle the others were a bit confused. Surely myrrh was used when people had died.

“He may need it later on,” explained Caspar

Mary, the child’s mother, just smiled and thanked them for their gifts.

“His name’s Jesus, and Joseph, my husband and I, are very grateful. He is truly a gift from God.”

The three men bowed again and each thought that they would remember this journey and this night and this child for a very long time. As they left they knew that were all leaving wiser than when they had arrived.

Oh, and by the way – they never did tell King Herod where they had found the child. Which was just a well, as Herod did turn out to be a very, very nasty man!

Wise Men Came Travelling

Wise Men Came Travelling

The visit of the Wise Men or Magi to the Holy Family is celebrated in the Church of England as Epiphany on Twelfth Night (6th January). An epiphany is a moment of sudden and great revelation, which the wise men experienced on seeing the Christ child. Despite their names not being recorded, some traditions believe they may all have been Eastern kings –  and of the three Balthazar is an alternate form of the Babylonian king Belshazzar, mentioned in the Book of Daniel.

As to whether there were only three of them, this may be an assumption from the fact that there were just three gifts mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 2:1-12); in the East, the Magi traditionally number twelve,

However many there were, they certainly didn’t arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth, as the family had relocated from a stable to a house (Matthew 2:11). It would also seem that only Mary was there at the time of the visit to her child, who was likely to have been several months old but no more than two years old (Matthew 2:16)

And the star that they followed? Now known as the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas star, and which astronomers throughout the ages have attempted to link to unusual astronomical events, such as a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a comet or a supernova. Whatever it was it led them to the correct place.

May Christ’s love be revealed in and through you this Christmastide!