Sunday, 28 December 2014

Can't make it to church? 28th December 14

Today we have remember the 'Holy Innocents' - the children who were put to death by Herod in his quest to ensure that any competition to being king was quite literally 'put down'.

If we looks at the Gospel reading (Matthew 2.13-18) we find the following:

"Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

The Passage in Jeremiah to which the Gospel refers is our Old Testament reading for today (31.15-17 15):

"Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country."

The commemoration today recalls the children who were put to death on the orders of Herod to ensure that Jesus was found and killed and this serves a couple of purposes for us in that first and foremost we realise that we are some two years into Jesus' life (which is why those boys who were up to the age of two were put to death) - a nice reminder that the Hallmark card moment of the Shepherds and Magi crowded into the stable is merely a nice image rather than a reality!

The second purpose is to remind us of the sort of bloke Herod was, for this puppet ruler was not averse to killing people who got in the way, especially if he thought they might be out to take his crown; and Jesus really fitted that bill from the description the Magi used of Him when they encountered Herod!

Herod had put to death his own children and so his actions were indeed in keeping with the story. Interestingly, outside of the Matthew account, we have little to add weight to the story until the late fourth/early fifth century when a Roman writer, Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius. mentions it in one of his writings, the second book of 'Saturnalia' (chapter 4):

'When the Emperor Augustus heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, was his own son, he (Augustus) said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son.'

The problem with the account from Matthew and the reality surrounding it is that whilst some have hundreds, thousands even, as the number of those boys put to death, the reality would have been (due to the size of Bethlehem) something around one or two dozen! This is such beer that it wouldn't generally be worth a mention outside of those people who had been directly affected by the event!

That said, historical accounts of the time (and the man) do appear to indicate that this is not out of character and would have been rather likely rather than something fictitious designed to support the claims of a bunch of 'religious nutters' (my words)!

So just as we found in Mary the first follower of Jesus; the first to put their life and their ambitions on the line for the Messiah - Today we are looking at the first to have their lives taken from them because of Jesus having come into the world. Stephen might have been the first to stand for Jesus as the Christ and so lose his life for it - but the male children of Bethlehem were the first to lose their lives because of the opposition to Jesus.

This is a tough call because whilst we recall the death we do so with an air of sadness that innocents were killed and remember that today, across our 'civilised world', they still do. Today should cause offence at those who use their power wrongly; who take life because they can and do so to meet their own ends. As the light comes into the world the response is for the wicked to turn up the darkness! Herod did it then - other continue to do it now.

So today is a call for us to take up the challenge and oppose the darkness - bringing the light that is within us into the world 'so that all may see by it!', and the New Testament reading (1 Corinthians 1.26-29) is of assistance here:

'Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;

God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;

God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.'

Christians are not called to 'leave their brains at the door; neither are they called to engage in self-serving cleverness to be something. No we are called to be salt and light and peace to the world - it's about humility not being one of the proud. It is about serving rather than being served!

So today the call is upon us to be everything the world isn't. It is a call for us:

To celebrate people rather than self-promoting wisdom.

To seek truth rather than being subjective and puffed up with clever egotistical tosh!

To seek peace and engage in dialogue where others will merely stuff fingers in their ears and ignore everything that they choose to ignore.

And so from this we pray the collect (and the Post Communion prayer)for today:

Heavenly Father, whose children suffered at the hands of Herod, 
though they had done no wrong:
by the suffering of your Son and by the innocence of our lives
frustrate all evil designs and establish your reign of justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ,
in your humility you have stooped to share our human life with the most defenceless of your children:
may we who have received these gifts of your passion rejoice in celebrating the witness of the Holy Innocents to the purity of your sacrifice made once for all upon the cross;
for you are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen.

Now there are that many songs or pieces of  music that I could offer you for this day and yet one that fits the bill is the 'Coventry Carol' which has within it references to the 'Holy Innocents' and their death:

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