Monday, December 28, 2020

The Holy Innocents

Traditionally on this fourth day of Christmas the church has remembered the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem, which Matthew's Gospel reports after the story of the visit of the Magi:

After they were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called my Son.

Then Herod, when he realised that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
and she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.

I find this one of the most disturbing episodes in Holy Scripture.  Of course, the content is horrific - mass murder of babies and toddlers, driven by the king's paranoia and malice.  But it isn't just the content but the context.  This is the Christmas story, the story of the nativity of Christ.  It's a story full of light dawning, of salvation coming.  And yet right in the middle of the story is this darkest of episodes.

The way Matthew tells the story is striking.  The main perspective, if you like, tells the story of the deliverance of the infant Jesus from Herod's power.  It is primarily the story of God driving his salvific purpose despite the opposition of the wicked.  The flight into Egypt recalls the patriarchs journey to the same country - in their case not to escape persecution but to survive famine.  The main perspective is the thwarting of Herod's evil plan by God's providential care.  It's a story of the light continuing to shine against a terribly dark background.

But the citation from the prophet Jeremiah initially invites us to take a second perspective: that of the bereaved mothers of Bethlehem.  Herod's plan to murder the Christ is thwarted, but his malice is instead spent on unrelated children.  Taking this perspective is disturbing on two counts: firstly, could not the God who warned Joseph to flee also have preserved these other children? and second, was it not God's own salvation plan which led to this act of mass murder?  The text does not invite us to blame the evil on God, for it was Herod's sin which led to the massacre.  But if the Christ had not entered the world in Bethlehem, wouldn't the children have been safe from Herod?  They seem to have been collateral damage in the great war in the heavenlies, and that hardly seems acceptable.   I am reminded of Kirkegaard's question about Abraham: wouldn't it have been better for him not to be the chosen?  Would it not have been better for the little town of Bethlehem if the Christ had not been there?

The context of the Jeremiah quote points to a third perspective, to my mind even more challenging.  In its original setting, the first reference of this prophecy is to those bereaved by the catastrophe of the exile from Judah; and Jeremiah, on behalf of the Lord, promises comfort.  God's love for his children is still there, despite all appearance.  Indeed, the very exile is shown to be the work of his love, his discipline.  He will have a people for himself.  The best thing for them - the only true good - is to belong exclusively to him, and he will make it so, and in so doing he will turn their lament into joy.  Matthew, then, invites us to step back.  At the centre is the story of Christ, rescued and preserved.  On the periphery is the terrible story of the massacre and the suffering of Bethlehem.  But in the widest perspective, is there hope in the story?  Are we to see comfort for this grieving?  If so, for Matthew that comfort will come through the preserved child.

And here we perhaps hear another echo.  Long ago, another Joseph had been driven into Egypt by persecution.  And in time, that Joseph was able to say that although there had been evil intent on the part of the human actors, God had intended good through the evil.  We are invited, then, to see God's providence in the dark as well as the light in the story.  Not equally, not in the same way; not so that Herod is in any way absolved, not so that grief stops being grievous.  But that somehow, through this infant, even the evil will be turned to good and the darkness overwhelmed by the light.

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