The Holy Innocents, 1/4/15

This is a difficult Gospel {Matthew 2:1-23}.  And I asked for it. Our Episcopal lectionary, our calendar of Sunday readings, tries hard to give us the Wise Men while avoiding the Holy Innocents – the name given by the church to the babies murdered by Herod’s soldiers. We have three options for Gospel readings today: the FIRST part of the Wise Men story, up to their arrival & the presentation of the gifts; the story of Joseph’s flight into Egypt with his wife and child, skipping what happens to all the other young boys in Bethlehem; and a passage from Luke about something else entirely.

Because I am committed to Biblical narrative, to taking these texts as they come to us, honoring the skill and inspiration of their writers by not chopping the text into bits, and wrestling with them even when they make us uncomfortable -because of all that, I said, Let’s take this whole chunk, the whole Wise Men/Herod/Egypt story, as our Gospel today, and let’s see what we can make of it.

Why the heck would I do that? Why would I give myself this story? When there is a big news story about something terrible happening to a child, because of racist systems or an unsecured gun or a parent’s unloving judgments, I am the kind of person who hides the story from my Facebook timeline, and avoids clicking on the headlines, because I just can’t. Those stories tear me up; they eat up the emotional energy I need for my family and my parish. I believe it’s important for me, as a citizen, a voter, a parent, and a leader, to be familiar with the ways our society tends to commit violence, and allow violence, against children. But I do not, will not, cannot wallow in the details; it would wreck me, and reduce my capacity to respond to events and tragedies within my own community.

So why hand myself Herod and the Holy Innocents, and why lay it on you? Well: because it probably didn’t really happen. This King Herod – there were several – was a really bad, crazy, paranoid guy. He was said to have even had some of his own sons killed because he believed they were plotting against him. So it’s not that he wouldn’t have done something like this; he would. But the historians who record his other awful deeds don’t mention anything like this event, soldiers killing all the male babies of Bethlehem. Some people say, Well, Bethlehem was a small town; maybe the massacre that happened there just didn’t make the Jerusalem Times, and enter the historical record. That’s possible. But the general scholarly consensus seems to be that this particular atrocity attributed to Herod was probably invented by the gospel writer we know as Matthew.

I find that persuasive because it fits what I know, what we know, about Matthew as a Gospel writer. One of the most distinctive things about Matthew’s Gospel is its emphasis on Jesus’ life as a fulfillment of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Again and again, Matthew makes reference to Old Testament prophecies, often putting a spin on events in Jesus’ life that makes them fit those Old Testament patterns. Writing his account of Jesus’ life for a primarily Jewish audience whom he hopes to convince to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah, one thing Matthew does is deliberately cast Jesus as a second Moses. A new leader called by God to lead God’s people out of bondage. And one of the places we see that very clearly is right here. We just had the Moses stories at the end of the summer; who remembers another story about a cruel leader having baby boys killed? Does that ring any bells?… It’s exactly what Pharaoh did in the first chapters of Exodus, trying to reduce the numbers and break the spirits of the enslaved Israelites. Jesus, like Moses, is the one special baby boy, protected by God, who escapes an evil king’s cruelty and grows up to save his people. And in case anybody missed it, Matthew hits the point home by sending the Holy Family to Egypt. That would have been quite a trip… another country, another language… why flee so far, even if Joseph did get word that his family was at risk? I tend to take the Egypt expedition, like the massacre itself, with a grain of salt – or as a narrative that tells a different kind of truth than historical truth. As I’ve said before: stories carry their truths in different ways.

What is Matthew trying to tell us, here? If there never was a massacre of baby boys in Bethlehem, Matthew’s Jewish audience in the late first century would have known that perfectly well. They would have understood that the truth Matthew is trying to tell isn’t the literal truth of historical narrative. Matthew is telling us here about the kind of leader,  the kind of savior, Jesus was called to be; and the kind of world Jesus was born into, a society in which the powerful could do what they liked without accountability or consequence.

Remember, Jerusalem and Judea at this time were under Roman colonial rule. The Romans were the great power of the world at this time; their armies and their emperor claimed territory from Britain to North Africa, from Spain to Syria. Where possible, the Romans liked to use indirect rule: putting in place a local leader  who would serve their interests and follow their orders. That’s what Herod was: a puppet king, subjugated to the Romans just as surely as his people, dependent on their power and their goodwill. Hated by his own subjects for cooperating with their conquerors.

Notice what Matthew says here: When King Herod heard the wise men from afar speak of a newborn king of the Jews, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod the King is FRIGHTENED. Because his leadership, his position,  is tenuous at best. His people hate him; the Romans only care about him as long as he’s useful; none of his power or authority are truly his own. A rumor of a holy child, a new king called by God as in the time of Samuel, could threaten him in any number of ways; it’s entirely credible that he would have responded with repressive and ruthless violence.

But it’s not just Herod who is frightened. Jerusalem, the City and her people, are frightened. Their peace is just as uncertain as Herod’s power. A new popular leader could lead to civic unrest, which could lead – would lead – to Roman military violence, to crush any resistance and re-establish the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. It had happened before; it would happen again, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, and perhaps a decade before Matthew composed his Gospel.

Herod probably didn’t send soldiers to kill the babies of Bethlehem; but Matthew wants us to know that he could have, and the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem would have had no recourse. The Romans wouldn’t have cared unless it made trouble for them. The religious leaders of the great Temple had no power or will to oppose Herod. There was no earthly authority to hold Herod’s cruelty in check. The truth this story carries, what Matthew wants us to understand, is that Jesus, who was God, was born poor and ordinary and vulnerable, was born into a world of fear and violence, a world of powerlessness and bitter injustice. Everything else he tells us, about the love and anger and courage of Christ, about his preaching and teaching, his healing and arguing, his life and his death, flows out of this initial piece of scene-setting: Matthew’s description of the ruthless and hopeless times into which God chose to be born.

In the fifth century, this story began to be celebrated in the church as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It was honored in many ways and many places, over the centuries. Today, in the western churches, it has largely fallen out of practice. Too ugly a story to celebrate. Too bloody, too strange, too archaic, too upsetting.

But there may be something here worthy of reclaiming. There is still much that is fearful in our world, much that is violent and ruthless, and many who are vulnerable. A friend of mine,  a priest in an urban setting in New Jersey, celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents this year by having a simple weekday service for the children of his community – largely children of color – and members of the local police department. The children anointed the policemen

and prayed for their work and their safety, and the policemen prayed for the children – for them to be safe and learn and grow into adults who make their world a better place.

That service reworked one of the ancient traditions of the Feast of the Holy Innocents: praying for the children of the congregation or village. Moved and inspired by that tradition and by this example in calling it into the present, I’m inviting us to pray together today for the protection and flourishing of our children, here at St. Dunstan’s. Those who are here with us today; those who are still traveling, or home sick, or tucked in for their morning naps – and by extension, for all the children of Madison and Middleton and beyond.

To the children who are here today: I invite you to come into the center of our church. Parents with babes in arms, if you’re comfortable doing so, please join us here too. And I ask the congregation to raise your hands and join me in praying over our kids, using words adapted from St Patrick of Ireland.

We pray over you not because we think you are in danger, dear ones – there is no Herod lurking here – but because we love you, and your wellbeing and safety and nurture are one of the very most important things entrusted to us as your family of faith. So, as we begin this new year, as we welcome the light of the Incarnation shining into the darkness of our world, let us pray for these young people.

I call today upon our God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

in unity of love,

to bless our children among us.

I call upon God’s power to guide you,

God’s might to uphold you,

God’s Wisdom to teach you,

God’s Eye to watch over you,

God’s Ear to hear you,

God’s Hand to guide you,

God’s Shield to shelter you,

God’s Way to lie before you.

Christ be with you, Christ within you,

Christ behind you, Christ before you,

Christ beneath you, Christ above you,

Christ in hearts of all that love you.

Dear ones, may you grow in wisdom as in stature,

and in divine and human favor.

And the blessing of God the Holy and Undivided Trinity be upon you,

body, mind, and spirit,

this day and forever more.

And let the people say AMEN.


Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Innocents 

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.

(1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 238)