Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holy Innocents

Icon commissioned in 2010 by Church of the Holy Innocents in Atlanta
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Christmas is not over yet.  In spite of popular opinion and a culture that ramps up toward December 25 and then suddenly stops, for those who mark liturgical time, Christmas Day is the beginning of a twelve-day season. On January 6, we'll celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany—the arrival of those wise guys from the east. St. Matthew will tell us (and James Taylor will remind us) that they went "home by another way." (For those who may not remember, the reason they do this matters.)

Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that challenges all of our sanitized and idealized visions of what Christmas is all about. (Technically speaking, since December 28 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast will be transferred to tomorrow; so I'm a little bit early.) The gospel reading for today picks up where that Epiphany gospel will leave off, telling us that while the magi found their way home and the holy family escaped to Egypt, the children who lived in and around Bethlehem were not so fortunate. (See Matthew 2:13-18.) According to the story, Herod is a cruel dictator - hardly the first or the last in the Middle East or in the world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to hold on to his power. 

Two years ago I was serving as a parish priest when these readings came up not very long after the tragic shooting deaths at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the first and only time in my life as a parish priest where these words seemed to hold within them, if not exactly "good news," then at least some deeper understanding of what it means to claim Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us. It was the first time that I was able to see that this story of Herod’s rage can be a kind of vehicle for exploring the mystery of the Incarnation and offer a way of hearing the familiar Christmas story at a much deeper level. 

Most historians agree, by the way, that this probably didn’t happen - at least not in the sense that historians mean "happened." From an historian's viewpoint, the far more likely scenario is that nobody really noticed when Jesus was born, at least nobody important. Maybe a few unnamed shepherds and a few odd stargazers from the east. The earliest of the four gospels (Mark) doesn’t even have a birth narrative and the last one (John) opts for a theological prologue. The birth narratives that Luke and Matthew construct for us decades after the crucifixion and resurrection to “fill in the blanks” do not claim to be eyewitness reports of Jesus' birth. 

The larger point is this: at the actual time of Jesus’ birth the government probably wasn’t too worried about the government being on the shoulders of a nobody from a small town on the outskirts of the empire. No one expected the king of kings to be found in a manger. It was only much later—after he was all grown up—that he started making the powers-that-be nervous.

So if it didn’t happen, this rage of King Herod, then we might assume it isn’t true. But here is the thing: stories can be true even if they didn’t happen historically. In fact, this is what great literature does over and over again. We go to see a play or we listen to a song or we read a poem because it conveys a deep truth and invites us to ponder our own reality in deeper ways. I have always appreciated the insight of Marcus Borg about the Road to Emmaus story; Borg concludes: "Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens." I think this is the same kind of story.

Over the years I've done a fair amount of interfaith Bible study with Christians and Jews. I can't speak to what it is that Jews might learn from Christians but I can say that the most important thing Jews have taught me is about how midrash works. Sometimes to get at the truth you need to tell a story and then sometimes even another story about the story. Something does not need to have happened for it to convey truth and meaning. (Jonah does not have to have literally lived in the belly of a whale, for example, for that story to convey a deep theological truth about inclusion and the breadth and depth of God’s love for all people, even Ninivites.) Jews just seem more practiced at embracing this reality than most Christians are; but we are getting better at it with a little help from our friends. 

In this case, Matthew’s Gospel (the most Jewish of the four gospels) wants us to know that Jesus is a kind of “second Moses.” And every Jew knows the central story of the faith is the Passover story—the journey from slavery to freedom as told in the Book of Exodus. Part of that story is about how old Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. Part of that story is about how the male babies in Egypt were killed, but Moses was saved when he was placed in a little ark (that’s the precise Hebrew word, the same word used in the flood narrative.)  Moses is put in that little ark/basket and placed safely where Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe and then...well, you know the rest of the story...

If we read these verses from the second chapter of Matthew as midrash, then Herod is playing the part of Pharaoh and Jesus is playing the part of a new Moses, sent to free God’s people. Joseph, the father of Jesus is warned in a dream to take the family to Egypt—reminiscent of the original Joseph in the Book of Genesis who was also a dreamer and whose many dreams led the Hebrew people into Egypt in the first place.

Now maybe it all happened that way and maybe the History Channel will some day find evidence of the holy family escaping to Egypt in just that way. I am not insisting that it didn’t happen, only that it isn't necessary to prove that it did. Either way, our work is to ask what it means. And I think the reason Matthew goes there is because it is true that the birth of Jesus does in fact threaten the powerful and does confront evil head on. Always. And when the powerful are threatened, almost always it is the innocent—especially the young and the vulnerable—who suffer. This we know and see, because it plays out again and again in our own world. A corporation chooses profit over the sanctity of human life and starts dumping toxins in the water - and children die. Congress lacks the political courage to act because they are afraid of the NRA, and two years after Sandy Hook there have been 95 school shootings across 33 states. 

Matthew is right to include this part of the story because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the Incarnation. It reminds us that the world that Jesus comes to save is not ready for salvation or for the costs of discipleship or for the justice that is required if there is to be peace on earth. I find this commentary from theologian,Rita Nakashima Brock incredibly helpful: 
If children are the heart of the meaning of Christmas, the message of the full story of Christmas is what adults must do to keep children alive and help them thrive. If we had the moral courage of mothers, we would not only stop gun violence, but also guarantee universal health care, assure parents living wages for all work, provide excellent schools for every child, and care for families struggling with mental illness. Without the message of Christmas for the world, its meaning for children is thin and hollow.
This, I believe, takes us very close to the true meaning of Christmas which is not a warm feeling in our hearts, but that Christ is born in our bodies again and again until we say yes. Until we really do get what John of Patmos got in his Revelation: that we are part of a people who follow the One who will ultimately wipe away every tear from every eye. And that in the meantime, we are called to be a people who sit with those who weep and help wipe away those tears and then get up and act in ways that imitate Christ. The Christmas story is not some fairy tale, but a truth that keeps changing us and demanding action on our part. The point here is the same as in John’s Gospel: God has become human so that human beings can remember that we have been created in God’s very own image, and then live like we believe that is true. 

As we embark upon a new year of grace, we are reminded that the God we get at Christmas is not an interventionist God who waves a wand and makes the world a better place to live. The God we get is Emmanuel: standing with us through it all, so that we never walk alone. God-with-us as we seek to be repairers of the breach; and instruments of God’s peace in a broken world. 

Step one is in acknowledging that the world is indeed broken, and needs us to be the Body of Christ.
Like the holy family and the shepherds and the wise men and yes, the parents and children in and around Bethlehem, we need to find our way into the Christmas story again.

Every year during the twelve days of Christmas I return each day to this prayer from the late Howard Thurman, who was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. There he played a role in shaping the spirituality of a young doctoral student named Martin Luther King, Jr. These words continue to challenge God’s people to enter into the pain and brokenness of this world—wherever holy innocents are suffering—as instruments of God’s peace.
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.

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