Thursday, December 28, 2017

Christmastide 2017: December 28, Massacre of the Innocents

 *Not Mary, but the mother of the slain children, is the one singing.

But then consider how the medieval drama "The Play of Herod" ends:  the escape to Egypt, the hasty retreat of the magi, then the intrusion of the military into the village.  The children are murdered and Rachel--the biblical mother--weeps and laments.  A comforter is sent by God, but she refuses to be comforted because her children are no more.  But this is not the end of the play.  Did they somehow invent a happy ending? Nothing of the kind. The ending is not happy, it is a great mystery. For there is a Te Deum sung: "We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord." The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the lamenting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that (Hopkins again)

we are wound
With mercy round and round. . . .

they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

"Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?"
--Gabe Huck

No, we can't imagine it at all:

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Roman Catholic, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to address the importance of defending DACA youth and DREAMers.

“Jesus was himself a refugee child,” O’Malley recalled, comparing it to the plight of the DREAMers. “What would you do if he came to your border?”

Carlson laughed. “That’s so stupid. That’s hard to respond,” he replied.
So stupid the Church devotes an entire day to it's observance, and has done every 28th of December for several centuries.  The text is in Matthew:

"After [the astrologers] had departed, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, 'Get ready, take the child and his mother and fleet to Egypt.  Stay there until I give you instructions.  You see, Herod is determined to hunt the child down and destroy him.'

"So Joseph got ready and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt.  There they remained until Herod's death.  This happened so the Lord's prediction spoken by the prophet could come true:  'Out of Egypt I have called my son.'

"When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true:

'In Ramah the sound of mourning
and bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)

The power of the state is part of this story: for Luke, it is the census that forces Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and her "great with child." For Matthew, it is Herod's fear and insecurity.

If you know Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," perhaps these words will start to insistently pound in your head, as they do in mine:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
The Angels' trumps alarum sound.

The words are Robert Southwell's, but Britten sets them to an insistent, pounding rhythm, gives them a sense of urgency that threatens to break with sense and almost induce panic. In Britten's version the words rush out, tumbling over each other in their potency, their sheer physical need to be spoken, rising to a crescendo on the last line as the Angel's trumps alarums sound. That is the noise that wakes Herod from his comfortable dream.

It isn't about us; and it isn't about our triumph, and life is not supposed to be sugar-coated and dandy just because we now "believe in God." We don't want there to be a cost to everything, especially to what we want, but that makes us Herod. We don't want to be Herod, but we don't want to acknowledge that there is a price to everything we want. We want to forget that. But Rachel can't forget. Jeremiah (whom Matthew is quoting), can't forget. Matthew can't forget. Not even Luke can forget. When Jesus is presented at the Temple, Simeon sings the last song in Luke, the Nunc Dimmitus, and it is the only song in Luke that is a song of death, but still a song of triumph:

Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.

And then he turns to Mary and says:

34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Why does this story never wear out? Well, in this case, because it is always coming about, again and again. Much like the Massacre of the Innocents. It is a part of the world we are called to redeem; called by the child in the manger, by the little two year old who threatens kings and whose life prompts horrors as well as blessings. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace...." No, says the Lord; not yet. Not just yet. There is still much for you to do.

Consider the world, and the children.

1 comment:

  1. This is so much better than anything I'd manage on the subject that I'm posting a link to it.

    Tucker Carlson calls Matthew's Gospel "stupid". Probably the most honest anyone on FOX has ever been about what they really think of Christianity in the history of that Mammonist outlet.