THE HOLY INNOCENTS 2014

As far as I am aware there is no other record of the massacre of the Holy Innocents than that which we read in St Matthew’s Gospel. From what we do know of Herod the Great, such a ruthless action would be in keeping with his character, a man notoriously fearful of intrigue, and willing to kill his own family on suspicion. It was said of him, that it was preferable to be Herod’s pig than his son; Herod observed the kosher laws, at least in Judea; pigs were safe, sons not. Whether this is an imaginative story from the Evangelist, or in fact based on an actual occurrence, we don’t know. There must have been many such acts of cruelty down the years that devastated peasant families but never made it into the record-books. Even today’s massacres of the innocents only make the headlines for a short while, to be quickly forgotten by the world in general until another atrocity takes their place. But reading this story as part of our Christmas observance cuts through the saccharin and the tinsel and helps root the gospel in reality. The world where ruthless men kill children is the world into which God is born; a world which needs God so badly.

It is sometimes said that the world would be better without religion; and it is certainly true that religion can be corrupted like everything else; but whether one is a believer or not, the problem of human evil remains. If there were no religions in the world, men would still be cruel and vicious. We believe that God is born into the world to do something about this.

In the first place, he does not abandon us to our fate, but enters fully into our situation. If Jesus escapes Herod’s soldiers today, the fate of the Innocents will catch him up later. The Cross casts its shadow all over the Gospel. In all our suffering God is with us. What consolation there may be, what source of hope and endurance, in that thought, can only be discovered when we find ourselves in the dark places.

But God does not come simply to be another victim, he comes to show us a better way. We do not have to be Herod. It is true that there is a Herod in all of us; greedy of control, fearful of others, willing to treat people as things, capable of cruelty. We may not always be in a position to order massacres – thank goodness – but there are other ways of exploiting vulnerability and abusing the powerless. The temptation may be there, but we don’t have to yield to it. Jesus teaches and models a different way of being human, willing to respect others, choosing not to take advantage of them, and in the end preferring to suffer injustice to ourselves rather than to do it to others.

Our Christmas liturgy emphasises over and over that line in St John’s Gospel: “to them that received him, he gave power to become children of God”. Jesus shows us a better way of being human; choosing his way of love and suffering, we stop being sons of Herod and become sons and daughters of God.

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