Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

“In Ramah was there a voice heard … Rachel weeping for her children”

We have heard the weeping of Rachel, the weeping of a mother in Israel, a mother weeping for her children “because they are not.” It is a grim scene of unmitigated grief, a mother who “would not be comforted.” No scene is perhaps more disturbing and troubling than this story and yet it belongs to the mystery of Christmas, to the mystery of human redemption.

We have heard the weeping of Rachel in the griefs of the mothers and fathers of the little ones in Newtown, Connecticut. We have heard the weeping of Rachel, too, in the grief-stricken cries of mothers who have lost sons and daughters in the mindless acts of terrorism and violence that is all too much a feature of our current world. How to make sense of the senselessness of cruel violence?

In a way, it is through this story which only Matthew tells. It is the story of Herod seeking to annihilate a potential rival to his throne by enacting a policy of infanticide, unwittingly following the same programme of political expediency as Pharoah, a thousand years before him, had followed as well. It is expedient to get rid of what seems to threaten you or even worse, perhaps, what might seem inconvenient and a bother to your lifestyle. None of us are completely removed from underlying impulses in this story. It names our violence and its root causes and, no, the root causes here are not social and economic. The causes of such mindless acts of destructive violence are found in the disorders of the human heart.

Such things may indeed contribute to a culture. The mindless acts of violence that we contemplate in our modern dystopian world belong, I argue, to the culture of narcissism and nihilism. They go together. Going out in a blaze of attention-seeking glory while taking as many as you can with you. ‘Look at me, look at me, poor me’, for whatever reason. And if you haven’t looked at me, well, I will find a way to get your attention. All is vanity, an empty nothingness.

Matthew reflects on the destruction of the little ones of Bethlehem through the voice of Jeremiah, the prophet of the Exile. Jeremiah points a critical finger at an Israel that has been unfaithful and disobedient to God. The consequence is foreign domination and exile but he also envisions restoration and redemption. In a marvellous phrase, he envisions Rachel, the wife of Jacob who becomes Israel, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, weeping for the exile of the northern tribes of Israel. They are not, in the sense of having been removed from the land which defines them. The sense of loss here is about a loss of identity. But the overall passage in Jeremiah presages the theme of restoration. God making something out of our nothingness, to put it theologically.

Matthew has quoted the passage about unmitigated grief. This is part and parcel of the Christian understanding. Sorrow and grief, suffering and death are not hidden or ignored. The whole foolish packet of our humanity is on display. But so is the greater grandeur of God. The little ones whose death is so senseless and meaningless have a part and a place in the larger drama of human redemption. They are included not excluded from grace and glory, as the wonderful passage from Revelation reminds us. They are innocent, to be sure, and yet cannot escape the grim realities of the human condition which is always a condition of sin and suffering, of death and destruction. It is that condition which is addressed in the birth of Christ, God’s great little one coming to a very dark and disturbing world to bring light and peace, hope and redemption. The little ones who are innocent in the proper sense of that word, meaning, unable to harm, have been harmed and yet have their place in glory.

They are not forgotten by God and their blood shares in the blood of Christ. It is a disturbing story but it points to the sacrifice of Christ, the true pure and innocent one who dies for our sins at Calvary. Bethlehem marks only a beginning even though it shows us the way to Jerusalem.

The only antidote to our narcissistic and nihilistic culture is the God who embraces our world and counters its empty violence with the fullness of himself. The divine love is the only love which can redeem and restore, the only love which can set in order our disordered selves. “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.” Matthew, quoting Hosea, reminds us of the Exodus, the very story that is reworked in the story of Christ. The greater exodus is the going forth of the Son of God into our world to bring us hope and peace, salvation and joy. But only, and this is the realism of the Christian faith, through the spectacles of our mindlessness and its destructive fury, our narcissism and our nihilism. God is our only hope. In him we find the truth of our humanity. The little ones, too, are part of that story and find their place in glory, all our griefs and sorrows notwithstanding.

“In Ramah was there a voice heard … Rachel weeping for her children”

Fr. David Curry
Feast of the Holy Innocents
December 28th, 2012

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