Reading Matthew 2: 13-18
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
There is a lot going on in the church calendar in these days of Christmas. Quite apart from the big day itself, on the 26th we honoured Stephen as a deacon and a martyr. Then yesterday, we gave thanks for John, an apostle and an evangelist. Today, we mark the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which can get lost amid the Christmas festivities, especially as it often falls on a weekday. But not this year. In more than fourteen years of ordained ministry, I am preaching my first sermon on the Holy Innocents, so no avoiding it now! Now while I have some understanding of the meaning of the words deacon, martyr, apostle and evangelist, what, please, is a ‘holy innocent’? I can’t help thinking we have enveloped the infant victims of Herod in so much Christmas and Epiphany incense that we can no longer see them. Do we suppose the tiny tots skewered by Herod’s soldiers were holier or more innocent (whatever those words mean) than the kids up the road who escaped the carnage?
Here are the first children we meet in the story of Jesus and already we sense the hesitancy and equivocation about the status of children that has always beclouded Christian thinking about them and that sometimes continues to bemire its ministry to them. God knows we have seen plenty of evidence in recent years of the abuse of children, and shockingly not least within religious institutions. Oh, the bitter irony that this should be perpetrated by professed followers of the Jesus who apparently said that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven was exemplified by the child he singled out of a crowd.
Bethlehem’s slaughtered children are martyrs, a title and status that have nothing to do with innocence or holiness, still less with any precocious piety we might suppose they displayed. Theirs is the vulnerability that both makes them helpless before Herod and sets little children at the centre of the Christian understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Matthew understands the massacre of Bethlehem’s children as answering to Jeremiah’s haunting description of Rachel weeping inconsolably for her children, referring to those slaughtered centuries earlier when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Matthew’s approach in his Gospel is to take texts from the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT) and to compose stories which can then be interpreted as their fulfilment, as if those texts were predictions of what would happen centuries later. So we have the stories of the journey of the Magi, and of the flight into Egypt. But we should not suppose Matthew is misleading us by such a method of storytelling. If we are misled, it is not by Matthew, but by our mistaken assumption that what a story teaches depends on whether it actually happened.
Although many commentators have said there is no external evidence for the murder of these young boys, in truth, the story of what Herod did to Bethlehem’s under-2s is anchored in human history. Whether or not Herod indiscriminately murdered all of them in the hope of eliminating the threat posed by one child in particular (and by all accounts he was murderous enough to have done so) what he allegedly did is what countless tyrants certainly have done. Yes, tragically, the voice of Rachel, weeping for her children, is heard throughout history.
On Holy Innocents’ Day, we contemplate the suffering of children as victims of cruelty or neglect, or suffering lingering painful illness, or dying of hunger, or caught up in natural disasters. Because it is too easy to think in such generalities, we hold in mind – if we dare, and I have to say this is unremittingly painful – the single image. It might be the nameless new-born baby girl who was dumped in a station toilet in Delhi, discarded simply because she’s female. It might be the 21st century child slave I read about, forced to work in a tannery, surrounded by piles of stinking cattle flesh, and paid not a single penny. It might be the Jewish baby at the mercy of a Nazi soldier seventy odd years ago, or the hapless victim of the predatory Jimmy Savile, or the child in Haiti who survived for days under the rubble of his collapsed home before finally succumbing to thirst. More recently, it might be the schoolchildren of Peshawar, Pakistan, innocent victims of murderous intent and callous destruction.
There is no doubt that today’s commemoration introduces a jarring note to the cheer of the Christmas season. But, of course, it serves to underline the fact that the Incarnation – like human life itself – is not all sweetness and light. Our tendency towards Christmas sentimentality is shaken as we contemplate today the coming of the divine into the very heart of the messiness of our human condition – a concept unique to Christianity among the major world faiths. It is about the willingness of the divine to be subject to the random pain and death of our world. If there was a price paid by Jesus in his death, it was the price of having the courage to reassess your religion and recover its heart, getting a new grasp of what God might be like, and learning to honour each other as God honours you. Too many people – infants among them – continue to pay the price for a warped view of religion and of a cheapening of humanity. In a very real way, I think Holy Innocents and Good Friday are the same day. The spear of Herod’s soldier and the Nazi bayonet are both thrust into the side of Jesus, and the unheard cry of the child buried in the rubble, I’m thirsty, is the dying word of Jesus.
There is a myth in our society that Christmas must be perfect. The build-up to the main event, the advertising, the lights, the tinsel, the food and drink, the TV programmes full of snowy Christmas scenes, all lead towards the expectation that Christmas will be marvellous – and of course in many ways it can be and should be. If we’re in a fortunate enough position, there is a lot to celebrate: it is a true festival.
But on another level, if you think about it, it is all a bit odd given the events that we remember at this time of the year. An unmarried mother travelling with her fiancé to take part in a census ordered by a foreign power; the mother having to give birth in a stable; rough and smelly shepherds being the first visitors; and later on, strange pagan astrologers turning up and, following that, the dreadful events of the murder of the young boys of Bethlehem, and a flight into exile. These are hardly the stuff of which dreams are made. Yet Christmas is about all this, too. It’s not so much the snow scenes, the family gatherings, the consumerism or the myth of the perfect, which invariably gets shattered anyway. It is instead about the fact that in Jesus God became one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He shared the imperfections, the risks, the pain and the insecurity that are part of human life in the world. His life demonstrated solidarity with all who suffer or are unable to fulfil their full human potential, and to urge us towards a personal and societal transformation that embraces the suffering, the poor and the excluded, that overturns our expectations and challenges our values and priorities, and leads us towards fullness of life rather than pointless death.
What we mark today, with sorrow, is the snuffing out of human potential. It seems a good time to pray for all the unnamed victims of war, genocide, famine and disease, abuse and exploitation – for the innocent children, certainly, but for all those children of God of any age who suffer these fates, that, as he came to share in our humanity, so they – and we – may share the life of his divinity.