Christmas and the "Slaughter of the Innocents" - Why Tell It?

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more."

  Matthew 2: 16-18

DSC_2201The recent horrific killings of 20 first grade children and 6 caring adults in Newtown, Connecticut, right before the last Sunday of Advent devastated their families, broke the heart of our entire nation, and called the attention of everyone who has access to information - even so briefly -  to the unfathomable grief of a little town in a country known supposedly for the fierce protection of its children.

It provoked profound self-examination in many souls, myself included, and wrenched our eyes toward a portion of the birth and infancy narrative of Jesus that is seldom preached on or lifted up during this season of great gladness and celebration.  Yet right next to the first chapter of Matthew where the birth of Jesus is told, is the narrative of King Herod's edict to massacre all male children below the age of two - known ignominiously in biblical literature as "the slaughter of the innocents  -  in his evil pursuit of  destroying "he who has been born King of the Jews." Chapter two begins with the cause of Herod's fear, when the wise men from the East (a learned class in ancient Persia) shows up in Jerusalem looking for the infant Jesus so they may come and worship him, "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born."

His evil intent led him to concoct a deceitful deal with the wise men, asking them secretly to tell him where they will find the infant Jesus so that he "too might worship him." If not for a dream which warned the wise men not to return to Herod, Jesus would have been killed as an infant.

It has caused me some sleepless nights since the Newtown massacre to realize that it took such a horrific incident to cause me to come to terms with the realization that I have often overlooked a theme that is an integral part of the birth and infancy narrative of Jesus - that the great proclamation and mystery of our faith, that God chose to lovingly become like us by joining our humanity in the form a son, is told matter-of-factly alongside a story of great evil in the world. I can't remember the last time I heard a sermon or read anything from anyone during Christmas about this jarring juxtaposition of  radically opposite visions of life. But then, I thought, how else can it be told why God came to save?

Celebrating Christmas will never be the same for me again. That every time I think of the joyous wonder and awe of God giving an only son "in whom his fullness was pleased to dwell", I must also think at the same time of the darkness and fallenness of our world against which we still groan to overcome  He is "Prince of Peace" precisely because he came to save us from ourselves, we who continue to unleash the forces of destruction and hatred  that still wound the world and destroy many innocents. Away from the searing media coverage are children - innocents - who unbeknownst to us are being killed in biblical proportions to this day in the garbage dump communities of the Philippines, the Congo, Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Israel, North Korea, Ethiopia, Haiti and many other places on the planet.

God's love has overcome the forces of death, yes. But it came with a price, in the same way it came with Jesus paying the ultimate price on the cross. For us who follow Jesus, and to those who we invite to do the same, the cost of that price comes in the form of our resolve to work harder and better to to bring the light of God's love into the darkness of the world. The Holy Spirit's work of love remains unfinished in the world.

And so may the "Good News of great joy" fill your hearts and home this Christmas season, and impel our actions and decisions in the work of resisting the forces of destruction in the world, that we may sing with new and fresh meaning that verse and call to action in the great hymn, "No more let sins and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found!"