The Feast of the Holy Innocents
Sermon: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell
December 28, 2008
Texts: Jeremiah 31:15-17, Psalm 124, Revelation 21:1-7, Matthew 2:13-18
Merry Christmas! Yes, it’s still Christmas, day four of 12, to be exact.
A month ago, when I agreed to preach today at both Immanuel and Reconciler, I thought I would be preaching on the lessons appointed for the first Sunday of Christmas. I envisioned talking with you about traditional Christmas themes: the manger, angels, joy to the world. And I liked that idea, lingering a bit longer in the mood of Christmas, a season I love.
But Monte let me know he and Scott were planning to mark today as the feast of the Holy Innocents, which falls on December 29th this year. He asked if that was OK with me, and I said sure. I realized there were some rich possibilities given the lessons appointed for the day and Scott’s musical choices. But my heart sunk a bit, because this is a very solemn feast, one that puts the glad tidings of Jesus’s birth into the background for the time being, or at least puts them in different perspective.
The feast of the Holy Innocents remembers the children killed by King Herod the Great. As you recall from today’s gospel, the wise men tell Herod about a special child born in Bethlehem, a boy destined to be king of the Jews. So Herod swiftly makes plans to wipe out this possible usurper of his throne.
Herod orders his henchmen to kill all boy babies in and around Bethlehem. Joseph, being warned in a dream, escapes into Egypt with Mary and Jesus.
Did this slaughter of the innocents really happen? It appears only in Matthew’s gospel, not the other three. The historian Josephus, who wrote about that period of israel’s history, and wrote about Herod, doesn’t mention this event. Most recent biographers of Herod don’t think the massacre was historical. They do agree that Herod killed two of his own sons and his beloved wife because he believed they posed a threat to him.
It’s possible the slaughter of the infants did occur, but since Herod’s standard response to anyone he considered a threat was to wipe them out, it didn’t seem noteworthy to historians at the time. It may also have been a relatively small massacre – if limited to children in and around Bethlehem, age two and under, it might have involved a dozen or so children. Still horrific, but on a smaller scale, and thus might have escaped the historians’ records.
In short, there’s considerable controversy over whether or not it actually took place.
If Herod didn’t order this slaughter, why does it appear in Matthew’s gospel?
Mathtew may be making a theological rather than a historical point. He says the massacre of the innocents fulfills an earlier prophecy by the prophet Jeremiah. Matthew quotes Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah…Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more... “
Matthew wants to show that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by prophets like Jeremiah. Matthew may also be making a link between Jesus and Moses with this story, comparing Jesus’s birth to Moses’s birth. Comparing Herod’s murder of the innocents to Pharoah’s killing of the Hebrew firstborn. Matthew’s Jewish audiences would have easily recognized these parallels, and recognized that Jesus was someone very special, someone in line with Moses and the prophets.
Whether or not it is historical, this story has meaning for us. Stories can point to truth without being factual. As one Native American storyteller said, before he began one of his own stories: “I don’t know if it really happened this way, but I KNOW this is a true story.”
What truths does today’s gospel story offer you and me ? And why in the world does this somber feast occur so close to Christmas?
Sam Portaro, a former chaplain at the University of Chicago, says: “Our ancestors are to be commended for their unflinching juxtaposition of this story with the feast of Jesus’ nativity. It is hard to think of the grim murder of children so close to the manger. The tragedy of this story is that it continues unchanged, that even as the redemptive act of God in Jesus lives, so too does our deep need of that redemption.” (Sam Portaro, Brightest and Best, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1998).
Death and sin did not cease when Jesus was born, though our faith tells us one day they will, and that Jesus has ultimately overcome them. Today’s passage from Revelation tells us one day death and sorrow will be no more, and God will wipe away every tear. But right now we live in an in between time, between the already here and the not yet.
This story reminds us of our ongoing need for redemption. It reminds us that God came to us as a child, and asked us to receive him as a child. And we humans, like Herod, have some real trouble with that. We think about ourselves, our own needs. We have trouble receiving, protecting and valuing children, despite our protestations to the contrary.
The massacre of children continues today. Just a few examples from my own lifetime: the Holocaust, the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and present-day Darfur. In these massacres, children, along with other innocents, have been intentional targets.
Children are very often casualities of war, even if they are not specifically targeted. And those children who survive wars are often deeply damaged, physically and psychically. They are wounded, orphaned, displaced. And yet we humans continue to wage war.
And children die daily from causes other than war. Disease, famine, street violence, domestic abuse. In our own city, Chicago, 60 children died from violence last year.
How deep is humanity’s need for ongoing redemption. We claim to love and protect children. Yet our actions do not always support our claims. We allow war, violence, hunger and disease to ravage our children.
The massacre of the innocents continues. What can we, as Christians, do about it?
William Butler Yeats, in his poem “The Second Coming” writes: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed; and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
What does Yeats mean by the ceremony of innocence? Another preacher suggests that a ceremony of innocence is any ritual that reminds us of what is good and noble in the human spirit. It can be anything, large or small. Holding a hand, having dinner with a friend. Coming to church is a ceremony of innocence: we greet one another in a friendly way, sing stirring music and read sacred texts, remind ourselves of our values and commitments. Such simple rituals are especially important when things are not going well, when life is challenging, when our faith is being tested. (Galen Guengerich, sermon entitled "Ceremony of Innocence," September 19, 2004.)
The Christmas pageant here last Sunday was a ceremony of innocence. How beautiful and cherubic the children looked in their costumes, carrying their sheep or star or bell…how stirring their voices…how moving and innocent they were.
Today’s gospel, the slaughter of the innocents, is here smack dab in the middle of Christmas, to remind us that God came to us as child, and that we are called t o care about all children, not just our own.
In a world where there is plenty of trouble, and plenty of people, like Herod, who through their actions or inactions cause children to die, we need to continue to create ceremonies of innocence. To stand up for what is good and true and pure, while knowing full well that evil exists.
We can create ceremonies of innocence in many ways, including finding opportunities to work and speak out against neglect and abuse of the innocent. What can each of us do? We can pray and lobby and act. In addition to our liturgies, our Sunday ceremonies, this church can offer high-quality educational programs for children. Such programs are much needed and much appreciated in this urban environment, in any environment. Clearly children are not the only ones we can or should care about, but caring about children is something that churches need to do well.
There are many things each of us can do locally and globally on behalf of innocents.
One simple thing we are doing at Reconciler is collecting money for malaria nets. Malaria is a preventable disease that, in Africa, kills children at a rate of two per minute. It costs $12 to put a life-saving net over a child’s bed. See Kate after the service if you would like to buy a malaria net.
Little by little our kind deeds and prayers, along with those of our sisters and brothers throughout the world, will add up. We can ease the suffering of innocent ones in the here and now. And the book of Revelation tells us that one day our world will have completed the transformation begun by the one born in Bethlehem. Death and sorrow will be no more. And every tear – including those of the innocents and those who weep for them– will be wiped away.