Many years ago, the first job I had with Manchester Diocese was as Children’s Work Advisor, working for the Diocesan Board of Education. In that role I was responsible for connecting with and resourcing those who led Sunday Schools / Junior Church / Children’s Church – whatever it was called in the parishes across the diocese. (Later I added the Schools Advisor portfolio and later still Diocesan Director of Education – but that’s another story.)
As part of my own professional development I joined the regular, twice-yearly meeting of those doing a similar job in the other dioceses of the Northern Province. The autumn meeting usually had elements of a retreat about it – we even met in a convent somewhere near Ilkley. One year we booked someone to lead us over the two days in what was a very fashionable technique at the time, of entering into familiar gospel stories through the imagination. In a guided meditation we were invited to step into the scene of the healing or miracle, to place ourselves there in all its human sense experience. The scene would be opened up, the surroundings, the people, the sights and smells. The aim was to enable a different sort of encounter with Jesus, with God. I used the technique myself with Sunday School leaders, as a way of building a rich relationship with Scripture, to discover more about themselves and their relationship with God.
This particular session the leader chose today’s gospel, the Slaughter of the Innocents, for us to engage with, possibly because it featured children? Perhaps someone should have realised there might be too much to carry in this story? Imaginatively stepping into the vile callousness of Herod, the terror brought by the soldiers, the desperation of the families, the screaming of the babies...
Of course, it released powerful feelings, as these exercises often do. But especially for one of our colleagues, the very soignée Louise who was part-time advisor in Ripon diocese. Because Louise had lost a child in early infancy, a loss that coloured all their attempts to build a family, a loss she had concealed for most of her professional life, but which was shockingly revealed now. How could we respond to that?
A theologian entitled an early book looking at Biblical stories through the feminist lens ‘Texts of Terror’: how appropriate is that for what we have read today? And ramped up by reading it during Christmas week. A wonderful birth and appalling death in the space of three days. Perhaps that is precisely why we read it now. Christmas takes place not in a peaceful snow globe fantasy but a brutal world where children die and parents grieve in streets and huts every day.
Stanley Hauerwas writes perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus was born into a world where children are killed and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants.
The way the story is told in Matthew’s gospel is very specific; there is a reason why the story of the Innocents is placed here. This gospel was probably put together for a Jewish Christian community, so it is shot through with clues and signs for the hearers pointing to the way Jesus stood within his Jewish roots. All the time reference is made back to the foundational stories of the saving of Israel and the hopes for the future in God’s hands and how Jesus was the fulfilment of all those hopes.
Look at how the parallels are presented here.
Joseph’s being told in a dream would remind them of another Joseph in Egypt interpreting dreams;
this exiled family like all the exiled families in Egypt;
baby boys being killed here like the baby boys being killed in Egypt – remember the Hebrew midwives?
Moses survived to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. This child, the new Moses, survives, to lead the whole world out of slavery.
And Rachel? This looks back to the prophet Jeremiah who presents Rachel as the matriarch, the mother of all (strictly the mother of two of the 12 tribes of Israel), weeping for the children marched off to Babylon as the city of Jerusalem is sacked.
But in this passage Jeremiah is holding out a shred of hope. At precisely the point where the people are being driven into exile – again – his message is ‘Stop weeping. There is hope for the future. Children will come back.’
There is a midrash on this passage, an interpretation by extension in the Talmud. In response to the devastation of Jerusalem Jeremiah calls up Moses and the Patriarchs from the grave. Each of them is indignant and offended: why is God allowing it? They demand that God acts to save the sacred city and the people. But God is not moved by any of their outrage until Rachel, mother of all the race, stands before him weeping for the children. Even God has to respond to her pleas. The promise of one parent to another: your children will come back.
Matthew invokes all this in the middle of the story of Emmanuel, God with us, of the birth of the child whose name means ‘save’. This is what the birth and the deaths mean. This is what you need to know. Let the reader understand.
The threat of this Herod passes but when this child returns to Judaea another Herod is complicit in his death. In that death God enters into the fate of every doomed child and every bereft parent.
For Christians the birth of Christ can and must remind us that there can be no cheap comfort for those who mourn their children. Cute nativity plays and pious carols, children’s centres and yet another enquiry won’t stop the terrible toll of dead children and the devastation of those who mourn them. We need no reminding this year as we mourn another child, this time killed by those charged with loving and protecting him.
Neither persistent calls for justice for the dead, nor yet more legislation, nor vain calls for peace and the cessation of war can bring about the redemption of ruined human nature or ensure the triumph of compassion over self-interest.
There has to be something deeper to accomplish the depths of healing, of salvation that we need. Only God’s entering into this world of sorrows, as vulnerable as we are, as flawed as we are, becoming one with us. This is Incarnation, that the maker of the heavens, the one from whom we owe our being, steps into the world of pain. To share in that pain, to be with us in everything that happens good and bad.
Christians can offer no cheap sympathy, no soothing cliché that it will all work out in the end. We know mothers will still weep, daily.
But perhaps if God is with us we can listen to their cries of sorrow and pleas for justice in our time too, knowing that all our weeping is gathered up by the one who will turn it into dancing.
Nothing, not even death, not a bottomless pit of grief or the intractable legacy of injustice shall keep God away from being with us, from saving us.
This is Incarnation, in the faces of the weak and vulnerable, in the tears of the broken hearted, in the lives of the Holy Innocents, and coming of the Child of the Promise.
Richard Young (Rector)