The Feast of the Holy Innocents has largely been dropped from observance in the Episcopal Church. It’s a sad and grisly story, and rubs up uncomfortably against the obligatory joyfulness of Christmas and the impulse to take it easy for a while, in every possible sense, right after Christmas. I don’t know quite what led me to take a second look at this story, this year, and to decide to tell it after all – and to the children of the parish, no less. For one thing, I have a contrarian aversion to the practice of just ignoring the parts of Scripture that we find difficult or unpleasant. So while I feel the tension in holding up this story of murdered children as the coda to the Nativity, I also think there’s a deep truth and wisdom in its placement there that we may be missing. I’ve vaguely felt that way for several years. Then sometime before Christmas this year, I ran across the custom of blessing the children of the church (and, more, commending the practice of asking God’s blessing for our children and loved ones, to all our members) on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. I found that a beautiful and worthwhile custom, and it needs the story as explanation. So I drafted this. And then on Sunday morning between services, I pulled together some items to construct a simple prayer station to go with the story. After the Post-Communion Prayer, I invited the kids – about eight of them, ages 3 to 10 – to meet me at the chancel steps and talk about this story.
It all went fine. Nobody burst into tears. I talked with a few parents afterwards and they voiced some of the same convictions I hold, as both a parent and a person charged with the faith formation of other people’s kids: If we act like all the stories of faith are happy stories where good things happen to good people, then the faith we teach has little to do with the actual world in which we live. Kids, even quite young kids, know that bad things happen, that children get hurt or killed, that sometimes kings are evil. Let’s be brave enough to let Scripture speak in our churches with at least as much drama and danger as a Disney movie.
I have a story for you guys. The bad news is that it’s a scary, sad story; the good news is that it’s just a story. To understand it we have to go ALL the way back to Moses. Remember Moses? Remember baby Moses in the basket in the river?… Why was he in the basket?… [We talked over that story a little bit.]
Matthew, who wrote one of our Gospels, knew that story about Moses. And Matthew wanted the people who read his Gospel to see that Jesus is like another Moses – a great leader who calls his people into a new way of living with God. So there are lots of little things that Matthew put into his Gospel, his story of the life of Jesus, to make you think about Moses, and how Jesus is like Moses. And one of those things is a story about a bad, cruel king, King Herod, and how he was just like Pharaoh. Matthew tells us that King Herod heard that a baby had been born in Bethlehem who would become a king. He didn’t know that Jesus was going to be a different kind of king; he thought Jesus might try to take his throne, someday. So he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys there. But Joseph was warned in a dream, so he took Mary and baby Jesus and they ran away into Egypt to hide, and were safe.
It’s a scary story, isn’t it? But like I said: it’s probably just a story. King Herod was a bad, cruel king, and he did some pretty bad things, that ancient historians wrote about. But only Matthew tells this story, the story of the Holy Innocents, and people who study the Bible think that Matthew probably made up this story to make us think of Moses and of how he was saved, in Egypt, when all the other baby boys were being killed. So baby Jesus escaping with his family is like baby Moses in his basket on the river Nile.
But stories are powerful even when they aren’t history. And of course there really are bad, cruel leaders in the world, and there really are children who live with danger, every day. So let’s create an altar to pray for those children. First, a red cloth – this is actually a chasuble. We use this color in church when we are remembering somebody who died for God. Next, a crown for King Herod and Pharaoh and all the kings of the earth. Next, a sword, for all the violence in our world. (NB: I asked a three-year-old girl to place the sword on the altar, guessing – rightly – that she would resist the temptation to start swinging it around.) Now, some of the sheep from our Nativity set. Lambs are a sign of children and innocence. Next, a cross, as a sign of life coming out of death. And finally, a candle in a dove-shaped holder, as a sign of hope and peace.
Now let’s pray for all those children in danger in the world.
Loving God, we remember before you the children whom Herod slew in his jealous rage, and all children of the world who face fear and danger. We ask that your love will enfold, protect, and comfort them, and we call on you to strengthen the hands of those who work for to ensure that all God’s children have safety, kindness, and hope. Amen.
One of the ways Christians have handled this hard story, over the centuries, is to use it as a time to bless their children. Not just to have them blessed in church by the priest – that’s me – but to learn the habit of blessing them at home – at bedtime, before school, whatever. And remember kids need blessing not just by moms and dads, but by grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, godparents and teachers and close grownup friends. I’m going to teach you a simple blessing now. You can use it for any of your loved ones. May God bless you, and be the guardian of your body, mind, and heart. Turn to your friend and trace a cross on his forehead and say, May God bless you, and be the guardian of your body, mind, and heart.
And I say it now to all of you: May God bless you and be the guardian of your body, mind, and heart! Amen.