28 December – The cry of the innocent

After the Wise Men 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.’

(Matthew 2.13-18)

We are back in Bethlehem but we would rather not be here. Time has moved on. Others have been Bethlehem bound, three visitors from the east who saw a sign in the heavens that alerted them to the fact that a new king had been born and so they had come to pay him homage. But in their desire to do just that, to find the child, they alerted the one who was already seated on an earthly throne to what had happened.

Herod’s paranoia was triggered. There was no way some baby was going to take his throne. And so he comes up with a solution.

One of the most disturbing facts of life is how often it is the most innocent who end up paying the price, bearing the burden, suffering the pain. The ones least able to help themselves become the victims of the brutality and the mania of others. This year, that we are just about to leave behind, has seen more than enough examples of this. Just in the last few weeks before Christmas we have watched in horror the news reports of the school massacre in Peshawar, the murder of children by their mother in Australia and we have the ongoing inability in our own country to really engage wholeheartedly with the need to protect children and vulnerable adults and to care for survivors of abuse.

But history is littered with the bodies of the innocent. In antiquity it is the legendary tale of the rape of the Sabine women, supposedly around 750BC, which captured popular imagination. The Roman men were seeking wives from their neighbours who were suspicious of the rise of Rome. So unable to get wives willing to come they were taken by force. The term ‘rape’ in this context means something more like abduction. But the story provided rich material for renaissance painters and in their work we see all the force of the attack on the innocent.

The Rape of the Sabine by Cortona

The Rape of the Sabine by Cortona

It is a story however that reminds us that in war and tribal rivalries it is the women and children who bear so much of the abuse and pain. In modern wars sexual violence is a weapon used in a frightening way. Women, not killed, sometimes, but left scared, injured for the whole of their life. Girls carrying the baby of their attacker, hating what is in their wombs – and children looking on as their mother is raped.

Herod launches his attack on the children of Bethlehem, all because he is desperate to protect his power, viciously hungry to retain what he has, paranoid that this baby will take it away from him. This feast day, Holy Innocents Day, following so quickly on Christmas, once again serves to make us sit up and take notice. ‘Weren’t we just hearing angels singing of the peace this child would bring – but what am I seeing here?’ we may ask ourselves.

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’
(Matthew 10.34-36)

Jesus’ words to his disciples later in his ministry are foreshadowed in the events we remember today. And they are hard words for us to come to terms with. In that city where peace came in the form of a child a sword was drawn to slaughter all the innocents.

The greatest theological dilemma for religious people, Christians among them, is why bad things happen to good people. It is that question and the inability to get a good answer that makes many people give up on God. It is even more the case when evil is done in the name of religion, when it is the religious people who have the drawn sword and blood on their hands.

I wish I had an answer for you, for myself. My only answer is that the incarnation means that God shares in our pain and does not simply look on it from afar. That doesn’t stop the bad things happening – well not immediately – but ultimately it will. That may be unsatisfying but it is all I can offer.

There are in fact three Herods in the story of Jesus – Herod the Great, the one we are thinking about today, Archelaus who succeeded his father and Herod Antipas before whom Jesus would stand in the hours before his crucifixion. Herod was in fact the family name, but the story of this family would be bound up for ever with the story of Jesus, and their fear of losing their power would cause them to kill the innocents, behead John the Baptist and tacitly agree to the killing of Jesus, God’s own son. It is a story that we have seen and, I fear, will continue to see played out by numerous despotic regimes around the world.

'Rachel weeps for children.'

‘Rachel weeps for children.’

And, as it happens, we will hear the cry of Rachel echoing through the centuries, the cry of the mother weeping for her children, the cry of the innocent and perhaps our only response is to cry with them.

Into your hands, Lord,
we commend all the innocent
who have suffered at the hands of tyrants.
Make us restless to see better days come
when the peace you bring
will be the peace we live.

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