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Monday, 28 December 2015

Feast of Holy Innocents - Power Under Pressure

Christmas is all about children, right?

We're not told how many babies were killed as a result of Herod's instructions to kill the Holy Innocents. Probably not a genocide - Bethlehem was too small a place, and the age and gender of the victims were carefully specified.

The odd thing is that Herod is almost a postscript in our post-modern view of this reading. We home in on other details - why did God not warn the parents of the other kids to flee? Or - given the angel tipped the wink to him - why did Joseph not tell the neighbours? Was he so scared he just up and fled? Did he shout to them all to run? Did some not leave because, unlike Joseph and Mary, they were not already strangers in a strange town? Did the locals not trust this man with a Galilean accent, who hung out with shepherds and foreigners and whose child had an odd back-story?

We who have had theological training, of course, have read books. And those books have told us that none of this is true. No Virgin Birth, no Bethlehem manger, no journey to Egypt, no massacre of the Innocents - just a quiet upbringing in Nazareth.

Well I don't believe everything I believe in books. And certainly not those kinds of books. If Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the new Moses - fleeing a slaughter of Jewish babies at the hands of a tyrant, running to and then back from Egypt - then I'm going to listen to Matthew. Because maybe what it really means is that what Moses did was the shadow that Jesus cast, when Moses spoke to God face to face.

This is a story of human power, and the lengths men - nearly always men - will go to, to get it. Herod, the puppet king. He's sold out to the Romans and he's got his throne, but he's terrified. He's so scared of being deposed that he has killed his sons, one of his many wives, and his mother in-law. To keep his friends he raises money for Rome, and starts rebuilding the Temple for the Jews - that rebuilding that only lasted for a few decades. He is surrounded on all sides by enemies - some real, some imaginary, some that have been made his enemies by his imagining.

This scared minion hears a rumour from passing astrologers that there's a new rival around. He's just down the road, in the place David came from, and it's said he's decended from David himself. Herod on the other hand - he's half Edomite. There's no question where this would go if it were a question of kingly legitimacy.

Power under pressure always strikes out. Like Pharaoh before him - like so many Caesars and bullies to come - Herod decides that, if anyone is going to pay, it had better be the weak. And so he strikes.

Justin Welby has referred to ISIL as the Herod of our times. And I can understand that. Especially after Al Baghdadi's latest tape. Assuming the mass-murdering rapist is genuinely still alive, I wonder whether they only issue audio recordings these days because he's being held together with sticky tape.  Power under pressure. A random call to arms. Maybe, like Herod, he can feel the threats around him - the fear that if the Americans or Russians don't get him, and he doesn't get caught by the Kurds, that even the people around him can't be trusted. Maybe he's already being held somewhere quiet, by the bloke who's really in charge, being told what to say.

Power under pressure strikes out, and the innocent suffer. The weak always do. The Holy Innocents die now. But when Herod dies - having killed so many he loved, as well as those he doesn't - will he feel the sacrifice is worth it? His life is long by the standards of a Roman Empire puppet king - but will he look at the ruins of his family and wonder why he chose power?

That evil empire, the Romans, and Herod's cronies, the Priests will get the Christ-child in the end. They have to - unjust power hates innocence. And like Herod, the Priests are under threat from One who can rightly claim their titles. And the One who could be trusted with power will give it up, and takes his Cross. But in taking his life they will only confirm his claim. And the eye of faith sees that those Innocents - the first to die for their identification with Christ - will receive a reward when all things are made right.

But that's in the Apocalyptic Now, where angels and martyrs bow down to the Lamb that was slain. In this valley of death, the Powerful will still strike when under pressure, and we will still hear:
"A voice in Ramah. A sound of bitter sobbing. It is the crying of Rachel, weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted."

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