Friday, December 28, 2018

Holy Innocents

Santa Claus is for children, and Christmas Day is for children; but the whole story of Christmas is not.

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)
I was scolded once for forgetting that Christmas, publicly, is for children; that children are present in the church, and must be protected from the realities of adult life. It was right and proper that this should happen; the pulpit I preached from was not my own, I took liberties I had no right to take. But Advent and Christmas are seasons steeped in mystery and the whole of the human story, from joy to misery, from peace to pain. We shield our children from these truths, so we can shield ourselves. We pretend God is only about love and peace and our happiness, and complain that the God of Israel is a god of blood and thunder, while the God of Jesus is a god of babies and rainbows. Neither simplicity is true, and the simplicity of the Christmas story, that it begins with the Annunciation to Mary and ends with the angels singing Gloria to the shepherds, is too simple to be true, also. Luke tells one story of the birth, where the power of the state forces the Holy Family to Bethlehem but that power merely fulfills the expectation that the redeemer of the line of David will come from the ancestral home of David. Matthew tells the other story; the story of Herod's fear and insecurity. This is the part of Christmas the world doesn't celebrate. This is the part of Christmas we ignore, for the sake of the children, we tell ourselves; but it's really for our sake. Just as we don't want Advent blighted with the deaths of the innocent, we don't want Christmas spent remembering the Holy Innocents.

This is truly the Church's portion of Christmas. Appropriate to the interests of the church, Walter Brueggeman would call Herod's concerns the theology of scarcity, and point out it's a very old game, even in Biblical history. It is a game we blame on God; but it is one entirely of our making, and it ties the story of the Holy Innocents to our secular observation of Christmas, and our cri de couer for someone to tell us what Christmas is all about. This story, is what it is all about.

The Coventry Carol captures this story in one medieval play; it is the only remnant of the story that still makes it into our Advent and Christmas music, though we may not always recognize the story and the reason it is a "Christmas carol." In another medieval play, “The Play of Herod,” they the story even more seriously. To portray the story from Matthew, an angel is sent from God to console Rachel, but she refuses even the aid of God. She refuses all comfort. Of course she does; she is a grieving mother; her children are gone. What comfort can be offered to her? This is real; this has happened. What else could be felt, except bottomless grief, except the sucking, horrible pain of loss?

This is not Matthew reaching for yet another scriptural reference to support his nativity story. This is not Matthew trying to shore up his tale with yet another appeal to authority. This is Matthew telling us he has no words for this horror, and he must borrow words just to be sure we feel it as it was felt by those grieving mothers and fathers. This is not Matthew telling us this is true, because scriptures predicted it. This is Matthew telling us someone else, someone earlier, described it, caught the horror of it, knew what it felt like. This is Matthew telling us this is real. This is Matthew telling us to believe this birth occurred, because the world is not kind to saviors, even when they are babies. The world does not seek salvation, but its own contentment; and it does not react well to mystery.

So Rachel cannot be comforted, but that is not where "The Play of Herod" ends. It ends where it should: in holy 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
Or, to return to Luke:

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.
But Simeon turns to Mary and says:

And 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;

(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
Even in Luke's more beautiful, more popular version, we cannot escape it: the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, and the penetrating mystery at the heart of the season, just as the year begins again.


  1. Thank you so much for reminding us of the Season of Advent and now the 12 day season of Christmas. I look forward to it every year, and post it on my FB page.

    1. Thank you. That is a Christmas gift for me.