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25 December 2010

The Holy Innocents

Stanley Hauerwas once said that sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of understanding the gospel. Tomorrow's text from Matthew 2 is quite the antidote, yanking us away from our sweet carols by presenting us with the fact that, like once Baby Moses, Baby Jesus had to be spirited away because the powers that be perceived him as a threat. If we look closely, children have been considered "collateral damage" everywhere and at every time in human history; they are an easy target because they can't defend themselves when the empire strikes.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, instituted by the church as the “underside” of the Christmas story, reminds us that the incarnation is costly.  A God who "invades from below" (Ched Myers) will forever be a threat to human empires then and now.

 Giotto di Bondone: Holy Innocents

Oh child, we can not help but see 
these holy days your agony,
which in this night so late we wrought, 

by our own guilt upon you brought.
Lord, have mercy.

This day the world sounds rapture's cry 

yet in a lowly barn you lie.
Your sentence has long been prepared, 

the cross is ready, for you reared.
Lord, have mercy.

This day the world basks in joy's light, 

yet for you waits the court room's blight.
Your misery no one can doom. 

Before your manger gapes the tomb.
Lord, have mercy.

This day the world is rich with chant, 

yet no one will a bed you grant
and sing you into tender sleep. 

Our penance we did on you heap.
Lord, have mercy.

When we some day with you will rise 

and see your face without disguise,
at last without a bitter word 

our heart is wide, its song is heard.
Come, Lord, save us.

Jochen Klepper (1938), translated by Fritz Wendt (1996)

They were poor. They had no home. Because nobody in Bethlehem had room, their baby was born likely in a cave, in a feeding trough. People in our pews are often scandalized by the grim grit of a story that sounds so much less like "Silent Night" and so much more like the evening news. I still remember the enraged parishioner who came to me after a Christmas Eve sermon and screamed, "Joseph and Mary were not homeless; they were good people!". Somehow the idea that homelessness and goodness could be found in one and the same person was beyond him and his biases. By the way, if Jesus knocked on your door as a homeless man today, would you go out of your way and love him for being who he is?

The story of the Holy Innocents is a story for our world, which also teems with refugees, lamenting mothers, and the murderous designs of the powerful. Those invested in the street theater we call our world will forever instigate against anyone who reminds them that worldly powers, potentates and palaces are on their way out.  Being the People of God, it behooves us to "keep Herod in Christmas", and to remember daily that while we are IN the world, we are not OF it!

Matthew 2:13-23

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