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Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

“Herod … slew all the children that were in Bethlehem”

Christmas is for children, it is frequently said and rightly so bearing in mind that we are all the children of God and especially at this holy time when God became a little child. And yet, so much for children in our violent and brutal world where the innocent little ones are all too frequently the casualties and victims of horrendous acts of violence. And so, too, in the Christmas story.

The most troubling scene in the Old Testament, it seems to me, is the story of the Levite’s concubine. Abused and ravaged, she dies with her hands outstretched on the threshold of her master’s house; her body then cut up and circulated to all of the tribes of Israel as witness to the collective betrayal of the Law and of the universal laws of hospitality, the like of which had never before been seen in Israel. But the most troubling scene in the New Testament, it seems to me, is the story of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, killed because of Herod’s envy and fear about a rival King, on the one hand, and out of unbridled power without truth, without justice, without compassion, without restraint, on the other hand. Just so it speaks to our disordered world.

That this story belongs to the Christmas mystery is itself most telling and most moving. If it is the most troubling scene, it is also one of the most moving. It shatters all of our sentimental nonsense about Christmas. In this story we confront the deeper meaning of Christ’s Incarnation and face the realities of human wickedness, then and now. We don’t want to hear it and many are utterly unaware of it. And yet it marks the last of the three special Holy Days of Christmas, all of which comment upon the deeper meaning of Christ’s holy birth.

At issue, I suppose, is whether we are up to pondering this mystery. Almost universally overlooked, this story more than any other speaks directly and powerfully to the worst of the worst in our sad and troubled world, fractured and broken, violent and destructive. Christmas by virtue of this Christmas story is not a distraction but a condemnation of human folly and its violence. None of us escape this story. It belongs to the sad and sorry pageant of human violence, to the continuing spectacles of genocide and destruction that more than any other age belong to the story of the last one hundred years. It speaks as well to all of the deaths of the little ones in the name of convenience and expediency however complicated and complex the context. To ponder this story is to enter more fully into the Christmas mystery such that joys tinged by sorrow are deepened into faith and worship.

Nothing can be harder than the idea that God “madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths” as the Collect puts it. It seems so unimaginably impossible until we glimpse that by these deaths, the death of the little ones throughout the whole course of human history, they participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They participate by anticipation in Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, including the sins of our violence and destruction of the innocent, meaning nothing more than those who are unable to harm.

Thus the reading from Revelation identifies them as “they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth,” even though they precede his death, they follow in its significance.  They are as Revelation puts it “redeemed from among men, being the first-fruits unto God.”

For many this is a gruesome kind of language and imagery, almost impossible to consider. Yet, it seems to me, that it speaks ever so directly to a world of suffering, especially the suffering of the little ones, especially the suffering of the innocent caught up in one way or another in the mad machinations of power in our disordered world.

What The Feast of the Holy Innocents proclaims is that the deaths of the innocent, of the little ones especially, are not meaningless and that they are not forgotten or ignored by God. It may be the only and greatest consolation in the face of the loss of children in whom are vested all the hopes and prayers of every generation. After all, it is the promised Son, not just the promised land, that most defines the Abrahamic covenant. Only through the promised son, whom Abraham is put to the test of sacrifice, are all nations to be blessed.

The hard, hard lesson of Christmas is that the babe of Bethlehem is the Christ of Calvary; there can be no hiding of the hideous and mindless violence of our world and day. What we are offered, hard as it is to think, is the redemption of the little ones who are not forgotten and ignored by God however much they are the victims of human evil and wickedness in our own world and day. This story forces us to confront our human evil. Yet to do so, is to acknowledge the greater goodness of God.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents recalls us in the most troubling of ways to the greater power and goodness of God in whom alone we find salvation, salvation in God’s great little one.  For that may God be praised and our hearts comforted even in the times of greatest grief and sorrow at the lost of children. Lost to us, they are found in God and so may we.

“Herod … slew all the children that were in Bethlehem”

Fr. David Curry
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, 2017