Feast of Holy Innocents – Volmoed 2023

Readings for the day

Today a few things come together that may not seem to have much in common. We are in the Octave of Christmas. And today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which is part of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. It is also, as chance would have it, the twentieth anniversary of my Monastic Profession in the Order of the Holy Cross.  

I was first professed on this day in the year 2003 and life professed in 2005, also on this day. Over the years a number of folks have commented on my apparent, peculiar devotion to the feast of the Holy Innocents, or the Slaughter of Innocents as it is sometimes known… It is among the most disturbing feasts in the church calendar. In case you were worried, I was professed this day because of the way various people’s calendars went together… The slaughter was pure coincidence. 

That said, over the years I have to admit, I have found a deeper respect for this peculiar feast. 

Over the centuries the Church, and monks especially, have made quite a celebration of this feast, celebrating these slaughtered infant boys as the first martyrs of the Church. A hymn in our monastic breviary for this feast imagines these happy infants on the lawn of Heaven, playing with their martyr’s crowns. I was glad when a revision to our monastic office omitted that hymn. 

Big questions hang over this feast… First and foremost, did it really happen? Only Matthew seems to know about it.  

We have two stories of Jesus’ birth, and they are quite different. Luke gives us shepherds and fuzzy little sheep and Jesus is born in a stable because there is no room in the inn. In our tradition we tend to merge Matthew and Luke into one meta story, but the stories really don’t fit together. It is ordinary to see a manger tableau with shepherds and kings gathered around the manger as in the depiction standing in front of the Altar here. But only Luke gives us a manger while kings, or whatever they may be, are only to be found in Matthew – they never, ever meet.  

Matthew gives us a furiously insane Herod and a jealous rage that leads to today’s tragedy – a flight to Egypt to keep Jesus safe and then the slaughter of all the little boys who stayed behind. As a child I was appalled that God chose only to save Jesus, and none of the other babies. It just didn’t make sense to me. It still does not. 

We could take some comfort in the fact that most scholars of the Bible doubt the literal truth of Matthew’s narrative. No other voice in scripture confirms the story. No writer in the Jewish tradition knows about it – no confirming mention has ever been found. Roman history doesn’t know about it either. Herod, like any good tyrant, had no shame about his atrocities. He would have been proud of his actions. The history of his reign would likely have included some bragging – but Herod’s history is silent about it.  

It is possible that Matthew just made up this story for some reason. That reason could have been that Matthew, like Luke, wanted to conform to a prophetic tradition that both Bethlehem and Nazareth had to figure in the story of Jesus’ birth.  

Luke sends Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (still in the womb) from Nazareth to Bethlehem to comply with a census (another dubious detail). After the census and birth, home they go to Nazareth.  

Mathew has this dramatic escape from the jaws of death in Bethlehem, where the family lived, to safety in Egypt. And, when they come back after the peril has passed, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus go back to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. 

The slaughter could be just a gruesome plot device to move the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Luke’s census seems very tame by comparison… 

But I think Matthew may have more to tell us in this story of the murder of children.  

One of the problems for our fundamentalist brothers and sisters is that they require of themselves a belief in the literal truth of all the stories in scripture. The Earth must have been created in six days; all living creatures, in breading pairs must have fit onto Noah’s Ark; Jonah must have survived for days in the belly of a whale, and so on… 

This literal approach is not an ancient way of reading scripture. In only goes back to an Anglican Priest named John Darby who in the mid-nineteenth century began building the foundation for a new form of Christianity which we now know as Fundamentalism. Prior to Darby, I doubt that scholars of scripture spent much time trying to reconcile Mathew with Luke, or Genesis One with Genesis Two. 

When you spend all your energy on forcing yourself to believe in literal details, you have little time left to explore symbolic details. If we let go of the need to take things literally, then other meanings can show through.  

Did wise men, or Magi notice a strange celestial happening, a star in the East, and follow it to a specific house in Bethlehem, betraying Jesus to Herod along the way? A possible meaning for this part of the story: Magi, folks who were not Jews and were totally foreign to the Roman world are also included in this inbreaking of God into our world.  

In our Christian Tradition we have lived with the assumption that God came first to our Jewish forebears, then to us, and it is up to us to share God with others. But perhaps Matthew is telling us that God is bigger than we think. The God we worship is also the God of sorcerers, of Magi, of Gentiles, of foreigners. Jesus is not ours to share or withhold. Jesus is God of the universe. Our call is to love as God loves, meaning we must love everyone on the planet. Everyone belongs to God… everyone is already part of the family. 

We believe that Herod hated the very idea of Jesus. Herod was a tyrant of the first order who was happy to execute anybody. Did he know who Jesus was and is? I doubt it. I suspect that Herod thought of Jesus as nothing more than a potential troublemaker – not as Emanuel, God with us… not as the Son of God.  

But if we look at Herod’s actions as symbolic rather than literal – at Herod himself as a symbol, what do we see?  

What jumps out at me immediately is how very desperate Herod was to make sure that Jesus did not come into his life, into his world. His actions appear designed to make sure that Jesus comes to nobody at all, but I suspect that Herod didn’t really care about anybody but himself. 

What motivated Herod? It seems likely that it was a mixture of fear, greed, and an endless thirst for power. This does not describe most of us particularly well – or does it?  

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that fear is a powerful motivator in my life – surely not to the degree of Herod. Nonetheless, fear causes me to behave in ways I regret, in defensive ways. But more significantly, fear keeps me from doing things I truly want to do – remember that broad confession statement about things done and things left undone… Greed also plays a bigger part in my life than I would like to think. And as for a thirst for power, it is not for nothing that since the time of Benedict, obedience, a giving up of individual power, is part of the ongoing conversion to the monastic life. The thirst for power is ultimately a rejection of God – and that is ultimately what Herod was up to. It is a powerful thirst still today. 

Herod is unique only by degree. He did a greater number of horrible things than most of us will ever do. But he didn’t do things that were unique. More to the point, he didn’t do anything I am not capable of doing. So, this story in Mathew’s Gospel is very much a story told just for me, just for each of us. 

Herod’s behavior around the infant Jesus seems ordinary. Matthew tells us that Herod expressed joy to the Magi at the news of Jesus birth. He said all the right words. They were all lies.  

On the surface we are very happy to know that Jesus has come into the world, but our inner Herod may not be happy at all. Our inner lover of stability and status quo finds Jesus destabilizing at best and threatening at worst.  

In our calendar, Christmas and Easter are not all that far apart. It always strikes me that we are thrilled to welcome Jesus at Christmas. Just bear in mind, Herod said he too was thrilled by the promise of Jesus. But by Holy Week we will be in the crowd yelling “crucify”. At the time of Jesus, it took more than thirty years for things to go that sour. In our calendar it takes about three months.  

On the one hand, the coming of Jesus into the world is the best thing that can ever happen – literally. But on the other hand, the coming of Jesus means ushering out the familiar and comfortable. Advent begins with stories of apocalypse and that is in fact what welcoming Jesus means. 

In this week of Christmas, we are still living in the glorious vision of what God’s Kingdom can be… of peace on earth and goodwill toward all living creatures. It is beautiful beyond words. There is nothing we desire more than Heaven on Earth… that God’s will be done on Earth as in Heaven.  

Emmanuel, God with Us, is a very big deal. Jesus comes to change everything. Since the days of the Prophets people have longed for the time when justice will flow like a mighty river and water the entire face of the earth; longed for and at the same time resisted. 

The promise of Jesus is that everything will change – will be made new. It is not surprising, given the vastness of the proposition of Jesus, that we should have fears. But we need to remember that the perfect love of God drives out fear. 

The poet John Donne, in one of his Holy Sonnets, describes the encounter with Jesus this way: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” 

That is what Herod could not tolerate. This is what we’re called to embrace. 

1 thought on “Feast of Holy Innocents – Volmoed 2023”

  1. Happy Profession Anniversary, Brother Scott!

    Every blessing for you, your SA brothers, and all Southern Africa for 2024 and the coming years.

    Christmas Joy, hope, peace

    Greg Burke

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