Sunday, December 29, 2019

Massacre of the Innocents

Sometimes it feels like following the church’s calendar is a roller coaster ride. One minute there are incredible highs, the next a fast plunge downhill. Today, is one such low. Perhaps, even reaching rock bottom. The passage for today is somewhat unpalatable (Matthew 2:13-23). The text raises lots and lots of questions.

The story is of God’s protection for the infant Jesus. Herod feeling threatened by the stories he had heard about the rise of a new king had all the children under two years old murdered. Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and flee as Herod wanted to kill him. It is hard to read. Only one parent was warned to protect their child. All the other children were sacrificed. Not a pleasant thought. Was an all-powerful God not able to save more babies?

As I started thinking about saving more children it put me in mind of the film, Schindler’s List. There is a scene towards the end where Schindler wishes he’d been able to save more people. The scene is frantic with a feeling of regret and desperation being clearly portrayed. 

I wondered how Mary and Joseph felt? Their baby was safe, but many others weren’t. Other parents were grieving — “wailing and loud lamentation” (18). They hadn’t received a warning. They had no time to protect their offspring. If the incident had happened today there would have been talk of trauma and survivors’ guilt for Mary and Joseph. 

In the church’s calendar this event is remembered by the feast day of Holy Innocent’s (Dec 28). These children were regarded as the first martyrs of the church. Interestingly, in Medieval England the sadness and pain of the day was remembered by whipping children as they awoke in the morning. Thankfully, that custom ended in the 17th Century.

This story does not appear in any other gospel. Scholars are divided on the authenticity of it. Regardless, it is part of the faith tradition so I need to ponder it as I would any other text. I look around my house still full of lights and decorations to welcome the Christ child — it is, after all, only the fifth day of Christmas! 

In the middle of this celebration of Christmas comes this very harsh reading. Perhaps, the story serves as a reminder of the brutality of the times the Christ child was born into. Yet, it raises question about how one deals with these unpalatable passages. Are they to be ignored? Are they to be swept under the carpet? When one is reading the lectionary there is always the temptation to focus on the “good” bits of the story. That has always felt a little dishonest to me. 

Faith and honesty in dealing with the scriptures sometimes feels like walking a tightrope. I want to be honest, but sometimes that honesty leads me to say that a passage displays a trait of God which I do not like. This is one such passage — a God who only saves one child, albeit a child with a special mission. It feels a little distasteful.

So, this week, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, I will keep shaking this passage in the hope I will find a blessing in the words that were penned as I walk my tightrope between faith and honesty.