One of the things that happens in the days immediately following our Christmas services each year is that priests around the Diocese get in touch with each other, either through visits or by telephone and e-mail to de-brief to each other in a form of communal therapy. We tell each other what went well, and we laugh and cringe with each other about what we got wrong and the extent to which people noticed our mistakes or not. Most of those conversations end with a sigh and a sentiment like, “of course we will be playing to an empty gallery this coming weekend… there won’t be many people at Mass now that all of the Christmas services are over for another year.”
The crowds come for Christmas, and we have one of those mountain top experiences where we feel for once in the year that what we do here week by week has meaning for everyone who lives around us as visitors come and celebrate with us. And then things hit the ground with a bang as life returns to normal once again on the weekend following our Christmas festivities. There are no great crowds here today, no donkey or goats or sheep walking down the aisle as there were on Christmas Eve. Our beautiful choir is taking a well deserved break.
Our readings on this first weekend in the Christmas season bring us sharply back to reality as we move from the miracle of the birth of Jesus, to the reality of why he was born at all as we come face to face with human sinfulness.
The writer of the First Letter of John vocalises what we all know to be true deep in our hearts when he says, as we heard a few moments ago: “if we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Today we do not find ourselves, in our Gospel reading at a Christmas party at which friends and family are gathered together to celebrate the love that we find in Jesus’ birth, with shepherds and angels and wise men. Instead we are confronted by the very human desire for power and control that lurks in all of us, in the figure of King Herod, whose own sinful desires bring about monumentally tragic consequences for what we call the ‘Holy Innocents’: the young children in Bethlehem who are slaughtered as part of the king’s plan for eradicating the threat that the baby Jesus posed to him.
In Matthew’s story of the birth of our Saviour, wise men travel from the far corners of the earth, guided by a star to pay homage to Jesus. They visit King Herod first in his royal palace supposing that Jesus will be there, only to find that he is instead in a humble home in the small village of Bethlehem.
Herod, on hearing the news that a rival king has been born urges the wise men to return to him to give him the exact location of the child under the pretext that he also wishes to pay him homage, but when the wise men discover his evil intentions they leave another way. But nothing will stop Herod’s desire to secure his own hold of kingly power. This is the man who has already killed three of his own sons because of his paranoia that they were a threat to his position of political leadership; and so Joseph leads his family out of their home-town and into the safety of a neighbouring country where they live as refugees until it is safe to return.
As I have been reflecting on this figure of King Herod and his evil actions, during the days since our Christmas festivities, I have had to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth, that as I become outraged about this rogue King’s behaviour, I have also to come to make sense of other stories in our tradition, of Abraham for example, who would have been willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, because that is what he thought God wanted him to do. A more spiritually motivated story perhaps, but which would have led to exactly the same death for his son Isaac as happened to these children in Bethlehem.
Far more significant than that, I have to come face to face with the re-telling of the story of Jesus, so familiar in some churches around us (but not here amongst us I hope) that says that the only purpose of God bringing his son Jesus into the world was so that he could kill him on the cross for our sins. It is little wonder that such twistings of the story of God’s love for us, have led to so many people walking away from the Church in disbelief at its message.
What are we to do with stories like this one? Where is God when innocent children are being killed in Bethlehem as King Herod searches for the little boy that whose birth we continue to celebrate at this Mass? The Gospel writers want to highlight for us right at the very beginning of their holy story that the Son of God is born into a world where things go wrong, not just by accident or error, but by viciousness, violence and deliberate cruelty.
None of us who are parents or grandparents can simply gloss over with religious platitudes the fact that these young children are murdered as a cruel king tries to remove the threat of the king of kings who has been born amongst them. I have heard preachers say, “yes, its unpleasant, but God willed these deaths to happen for his greater plan.” But I simply cannot believe it.
The truth is that God does not arrive on the scene of our world embodied as a fearless warrior who can take on and win every battle on our behalf, he comes as a vulnerable baby, into a world where the plan that he wills for us is often overtaken by our own desires, and what we consider to be better plans than his. This is the mystery that we find at the heart of our striving to live faithfully for him. We hold tightly to the hope that all will be well in the end within the eternal life of his loving kingdom. But we know too that we cannot simply lay the blame for everything that goes wrong around us at God’s door as if he has somehow cruelly and vindictively put problems in our pathway in order to test us.
These children die as a result of human sin, not God’s plan; and children die every day around the world through violence, hunger and disease, the vast majority of which could be eradicated if only the international community had the will to do so. The writers of Matthew’s Gospel, in their own striving to find a way of accounting for the murder of these children quote, as we heard, from the Prophet Jeremiah which speaks of God’s own grief and lamenting for what is happening to his people hundreds of years before.
It is not an image that we use often for God. We prefer to sing about the one who is all-powerful and all-knowing, removed from the emotions that we associate with human existence. But here in this lament the Gospel writers point us to something so radical that it is difficult for us to grasp. That when we mourn in tragedy – whether it be human made or natural, God mourns with us at what is going on.
Bishop John Davies, reflecting on this event in his book “Be Born in us Today” says, “Hundreds of mothers are bereaved of their children, but Mary’s child is spared. Their children are killed instead of hers. If she had stayed in Bethlehem, it would have been a tragedy for her; but all those other mothers would have been able to bring up their children in safety. In a cruel and vicious world, they pay a price which Mary can wait thirty more years to pay. Eventually she also will see her son put to death at the hands of a ruthless regime which cannot cope with the kingdom that God is offering to the world.”
This is not an event that is caused, purposed or planned by God, but it is an event in which God is intimately involved as he mourns with those mothers, and there will come a time when he mourns too for his own son.
At Christmas we celebrate that God is born among us. This terrible story, that we hear together on the first weekend of Christmas, reminds us that God does not come amongst us to take back the responsibilities and the freedoms that we have been given. But it does point us to the truth of our faith that the God who created the universe and all that is in it, now, through his son, experiences life as we do. God in Jesus becomes a refugee to flee from the terror that is going in Bethlehem.
Jesus, who will one day act as the judge of all, knows intimately the experience of human living and is with us in the pain and in the joy. That is why the writer of the First Letter of John is able to say to us with us such confidence, “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.