Matthew 2vv13-23, Holy Innocents
Christmas 1, 29th December 2019
The last three days have been church festivals. The first two were our church’s patronal festivals. The 26th December is St. Stephen’s day, Stephen Deacon and First Martyr (Acts 6-7). The 27th is St. John’s day, for John the Apostle and Evangelist (St. John’s gospel). We hardly ever get around to celebrating St. John and St. Stephen because they are so close to Christmas. And please excuse me for not talking about them either. Because yesterday, 28th December, is Holy Innocents Day, and our gospel reading is the same as that for Holy Innocents.
That reading follows immediately after the Wise Men have visited the Jesus. Our Christmas narrative is a composite of Matthew and Luke: Gabriel appears to Mary in Luke, but the angel comes to Joseph in Matthew; only Luke has the shepherds, and the Magi are only in Matthew. Luke has Caesar Augustus’ ruling the Roman Empire, Matthew has Herod ruling Judea (the Great, 73-4BC, king 37-4BC). Our traditional nativities also have a lot of later material woven into them, and has drifted away somewhat from the plain text of Matthew and Luke. Mary and Joseph were likely from somewhere not far from Bethlehem (Mary was able to go quickly to see John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth), Josephs family was from Bethlehem, the City of David (because he went back there for the census), and he was a descendants of King David. They would have had relatives there, and the ‘inn’ that was full is more likely the guest room of a relative’s house (the NIV says ‘guest room’ instead of the KJV ‘inn’). This was already occupied, so Mary gave birth in the room at the end of the house used for keeping the animals. They would almost certainly have arrived some time before the birth, not that same evening. (See Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey.) The Magi probably came quite some time later, maybe a year or so after the birth.
We generally think of Christmas as a joyful positive festival. Peace on earth, good news to all men. Jesus come down to be with us, Immanuel – God with us, to show us God. It is a fun time with everything looking pretty with Christmas lights and decoration, festivities, carols, lots of good food, presents, a holiday, time with family. We have beautiful music, carols which speak of a Jesus being born, the adoration of the angels, the wise men, and the shepherds. We went with Maya, our granddaughter, to a service at Emmanuel church, Woodley, that contained a brilliant puppet show with a muppet-type nativity song. It was lovely. Maya has been going round the house saying ‘more Jesus’ ever since. (We think it came from the carol line The little more Jesus laid down his sweet head). The only things that mar the mar the traditional Christmas story are the lack of accommodation in Bethlehem (“no crib for a bed”), and the cold weather (“in the bleak mid-winter”).
But some carols reminds us of darker events. Unto us a boy is born – Herod then with fear was filled, “A prince”, he said, “in Jewry!”. All the little boys he killed at Bethlehem in his fury. The Coventry Carol – Herod, the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay. And these are the events behind Holy Innocents, as in our reading, and only appear in Matthew.
Herod was a tyrant, an absolute ruler, able to do whatever he wanted, with no law above him in his kingdom. But he was brilliant but paranoid, infamous for killing those he suspected of plotting against him, including his family and his sons. He was ethnically an arab, who was culturally Greek, politically a Roman, and he had been raised a Jew. He takes seriously the prophecy in Micah about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Mt 2v6). He pretends to the Magi that he wants to worship the Christ, gets as much information off them as he can, tells them to come back to Jerusalem when they have found the baby to let him know where he is. But he is racked by jealousy, and prepared to murder any infant that could possibly rise to be king. And it was needless, as Herod only had a couple of years to live anyway, dying of an illness (in 4BC, which is why we generally date Jesus birth as 6BC, the 0BC in the Gregorian calendar being wrong).
It is a dark story, and one that does not fit well in a nativity play. How could such a thing be allowed to happen? How could the peace brought by Jesus result in this? Where was God in this massacre?
Well, he was on the way to Egypt, entrusted to the care of a normal working young couple. His mother would have been a very young mother, his father a craftsman. He was born into a violent world, and humanly speaking, his safety was precarious.
It is not easy to introduce the story of an atrocity into Christmas; it is not uplifting or encouraging. It would rather spoil the atmosphere of the primary school nativity play. But the story is unfortunately realistic, and modern. The world still contains tyrants, violence, poverty, disease.
In our country, and generally in the West, we do not currently have to fear war. We are protected by laws, we have a society that cares for us when we are in need – even if it does so imperfectly. This peace is a huge blessing, invisible to us normally, only recognised when we come across the appalling conditions in other countries.
Christian peace, though, is not only seen in an absence of conflict. It is not isolating ourselves from difficult situations, shutting our eyes to need, avoiding seeing poverty or illness or distress. It is the strength from God to be a source of hope and help to those in need.
I came across an article just a few days ago, I found Christmas the loneliest time of year. Then I started working at Crisis www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/24/christmas-loneliest-crisis-charity. The title is a good summary of the content. It is not written from a religious perspective, but it does express the joy found in helping others.
The gift of God to us at Christmas is an encouragement to us to give, to care as God cares. Not to spare ourselves, but to engage ourselves. And Jesus, Emmanuel, will be with us.
I would like to finish with prayers from the Common Worship liturgy for Holy Innocents Day.
Righteous God, your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ dwelt among us and shared our grief and our pain. We pray for the children of our world, that they may grow up knowing love and security.
Silence is kept.
We pray for all children who suffer physical or mental abuse.
Silence is kept.
We pray for all communities in our world who live with the memories of massacre and gross cruelty.
Silence is kept.
We pray for all who are corrupted by power and who regard human life as cheap.
Silence is kept.
We pray for parents who have suffered the death of a child.
Silence is kept.
We pray for parents and guardians, that they may be given grace to care for the children entrusted to them.
Silence is kept.
As we celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, we rejoice in the fellowship of the Holy Innocents and commit the children of this community, our nation and our world to you, our righteous God.
St. John & St. Stephen
I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
the deeds for which he is to be praised,
according to all the Lord has done for us—
yes, the many good things
he has done for Israel,
according to his compassion and many kindnesses.
8 He said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will be true to me”;
and so he became their Saviour.
9 In all their distress he too was distressed,
and the angel of his presence saved them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.