Monday, 29 December 2014

Holy Innocents

A Sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 2.13-18, Jeremiah 31.15-17, 1 Corinthians 1.26-29

Well that’s it all over for another year, ‘thank goodness for that’ some will say whilst others love it all so much that they call the words of the Elvis song to mind as they think ‘why can’t every day be like Christmas’!

I guess it all depends on what we really mean by Christmas.

I was looking online at what the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury had to say about it. Not that Justin Welby has been well enough to say anything much in person due to Pneumonia.

In his sermon, released in statement form, the archbishop said of the World War One truce: "The problem is that the way it is told now it seems to end with a 'happy ever after'.

"Of course we like Christmas stories with happy endings: singing carols, swapping photos, shaking hands, sharing chocolate, but the following day the war continued with the same severity.

"Nothing had changed; it was a one-day wonder. That is not the world in which we live, truces are rare."

It’s not a cheerful message but it is one based on centuries of cold facts.

Those who heard Anne’s midnight mass sermon (which is available on the website for any who were tucked up in bed) will have heard that ‘of the Christmas cards received there were a few pictures of Mary and Jesus, but the biggest subject by far was the wise men, offering their gifts or travelling on their camels. ‘Mary and Jesus together with the Shepherds were way behind by number.

Of course there are always plenty of snowy scenes and Father Christmas images as well but unsurprisingly imagery relating in any way to the slaughter of young boys by Herod in Bethlehem doesn’t get a look in. Of course I understand why but it doesn’t make these events any less a part of the Christmas story, it’s just that we don’t want to dwell on this even though it’s very much part of the sad reality in our world.

If we are trying to think of an example we don’t have to go back very far to recall the 132 children killed in a Taliban attack in Pakistan recently.

Christingles and nativities seem far removed from such brutal realities and stories about cruelty, fear and despair don’t match with the idealistic fantasy of Christmas.

After we have developed a nice warm feeling inside with festive dining, gifts,  and best wishes for peace on earth around our Christmas trees, Matthew brings us back to reality as sharply as the sudden drop in temperature we are experiencing at the moment. As we are physically reminded that it is winter we are similarly jolted into facing up to the reality of our world.

The cold winds of winter take some adjusting to but once we do so we are reminded that there is beauty to be found in a frosted landscape. As our faith deepens and matures we find that in facing up to a reality which includes the unjust, sad and tragic elements of life that God is in there, somewhere. This is exactly the world he chose to be born into, a world of injustice, cruelty and danger. Where leaders demonstrate their power by killing those who threaten their status and continue to do so today.

King Herod (‘the Great’) executed anyone who he perceived as a threat to his throne, even including three of his sons and a wife so the elimination of some infant males in a small village would not have been big news to those that knew him. He was prepared to protect his privileged position with brutal force without a shred of guilt over the unbearable suffering caused to their loved ones. This was his definition of security and one which has been repeated through the ages.

Contrast this display of power with that of a God who reveals himself as a small, vulnerable and powerless baby. Indeed so vulnerable that his parents must seek asylum in Egypt if they are to avoid the same fate as the other boys.

The Pope reminded the world that little has changed over the last two thousand years when he stated that ‘advances in Iraq by Islamic State militants have forced tens of thousands of Christians and people from other religious minorities to flee’.

Matthew refers to the voice of ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’

We are introduced to Rachel in Genesis and hear of her great beauty and how Jacob is besotted with her.

Rachel dies giving birth while on the road to Bethlehem. In the midst of her suffering, the midwife tries to comfort her with the news that she is having another son who she calls Ben-Oni (son of my suffering) though Jacob named him Benjamin. Her child is the cause of her weeping but also her hope for the future.

The prophet Jeremiah draws upon this message once more stating that ‘Rachel is weeping for her children’ this time because they are being led into captivity and exile. He then offers hope that her children will return. Once again, her offspring are both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future.

Matthew tells us that the massacre by Herod is the fulfilment of a prophecy from Jeremiah.  Rachel weeps a third time, on this occasion over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. The next verse which we didn’t hear today offers hope as it tells of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel.

Each time we are given examples of why God offers hope that lives on but can be hard to see among the desperate sadness.

Sometimes we have to look a little beyond the immediately obvious to find true meaning. We are all probably guilty of wanting to believe a certain version of events knowing that the reality is going to be a bit harder even it proves to be more enduring and have more real meaning. Christmas is very much like that, we enjoy the socialising, the carols and the cosy images but how much richer can our lives be if we scratch beneath the surface to seek the real love God sent us in Christ? Love that is so strong that it can be with us in every aspect of our life’s journey through sadness and suffering as well as in the good times. Love for all of us for every day, rather than for a season.

It occurred to me that perhaps it’s worth going back to look at bit harder at the Christmas cards. When I searched inside there are many messages of love, friendship and encouragement, personal heartfelt messages, some of us will have written to people who particularly feel the loss of a loved one at this time. In doing so each message makes real the idea of an empathetic God who knows the pain of a parent forced to watch their child suffer and die.

I turned the Christmas cards over and was reminded that many are selected with thought and care, to publicise and support those who seek to alleviate human suffering with money going to Cancer Research, The Red Cross, Oxfam, Help for Heroes, Burrswood Christian Hospital, the Neighbourhood food collection, Hospices, Crisis and particularly poignantly of this Sunday when we remember the slaughter of the ‘Holy Innocents’ Save the Children.

I can’t imagine the agony of all who love the 132 Pakistani children killed recently and it’s hard to know how we can help. But as we pray for them our faith takes on an honesty which acknowledges that we don’t have neat answers to all the problems we face. Yet as people of the incarnation rooted in God’s love we also know there will always be hope worth clinging to.

After today’s sermon I don’t expect many will ask me to be Santa for next year, there hasn’t been a lot of ‘Ho Ho Ho’ has there. The reality of Christmas is a lot less attractive than many images on the cards but ultimately also far more compelling. I know today’s message requires some mental hard work and possibly some painful personal reflection but despite this, it is, and always will be, a message of joy and hope.

What many choose to regard as a fanciful Christmas fairy tale becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss when it manifests itself as a gritty determined love which suffering and pain cannot overwhelm.

Kevin Bright

28 December 2014

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