Saturday 27 December 2014

The Holy Innocents

Across the country tomorrow, it's that special day of the year - one normally not surpassed by Low Sunday (that's the one after Easter) or even Trinity. Right across the place, retired ministers local preachers, lay Readers, church wardens, enthusiastic amateurs and alarmed Sunday School teachers who thought they were just doing the "Little Angels" 3-5 years old suddenly discover they are doing what is, according to tradition and legality, referred to as a "sermon", "meditation", "thought" or "talk". The paid ministers having disappeared in a cloud of Prius exhaust within 10 seconds of pronouncing the blessing on Christmas Day, are now in Spain, Dorset or in their secret bunkers, enjoying 10 days off after leading or attending approximately 55 nativities, carol services, Christmas services, Midnight Masses etc.

And these wholly innocents,. having got Christmas and Boxing Day out of the way, are right now checking the email the pastor sent in the small hours of Christmas Eve, giving them the details of the service for Sunday. And they're in for a shock. Because, when they were thinking they might be saying something nice and cosy about shepherds, they discover the minister has decided to keep the feast of Holy Innocents this Sunday.

So the minister has done it again. Legged it and left the awkward reading to the hired help. And Holy Innocents isn't like the Trinity. You can't get away with some dodgy theology and a borderline-heretical illustration. You're gonna have to face the story in all its horror.

There's a parallel in the Old Testament. The killing of the Hebrew boy babies by Pharaoh and - in the midst of it - the saving of Moses. And there's a terrible reversal - a dreadful second Passover - as the Son of God slips away - back to Egypt - while others die in his place.

And the questions comes up - in among the tinsel and the three-day-old Brussels sprouts - how come the Christ child gets away, and we sing our happy songs, and quote the prophet Hosea - but God lets those other children die? Why does a voice cry in Ramah? Why are Rachel's children lost yet again?

We don't need Darwin's Ichneumon wasp to tell us that life is cruel, arbitrary, ultimately doomed. We've known it all along. And we know that the death of the Innocents is not a one-off. It goes on - the Hebrew boys of Egypt; the children of Bethlehem; the Harrying of the North; the victims of Stalin's purges; Coventry; Dresden; Pol Pot; the Christians of Iraq and Syria; the children of Peshawar. And that's just some of the victims of deliberate violence. You can blame men for those. But there's the other lost little ones - from AIDS, Ebola, starvation. Some of those we can do something about, some we can't. But the same God, so believers say, preside over their loss.  And Rachel weeps for her children.

There's no escape for the children of Bethlehem. No way to bypass seven fools with bombs and guns in Peshawar. Because, on the whole, the universe works the way it works. There is no magic wand to pull them out of the firing line with a "get out of jail free" card. And Rachel weeps for her children.

And to conclude that there is no God, that this world is all there is, and the innocent will die unless we can stop them, does seem to me entirely reasonable. There's an honesty in atheism that some forms of theism eschew. The God who finds the faithful car-park spaces is not, in my mind, compatible with the God who allows the children of Gaza or Belsen to die. If God is going to allow this to happen, I reckon, then God needs to take responsibility. If God allows this to happen - whether caused by evil men, or by the blind cruelty of the laws of science - then God cannot be let off. God cannot be off directing traffic on the Westway while children die at the hands of evil men across the world.

One boy-baby survived that minor holocaust in Bethlehem. It is said that, after a time lying low - like the children currently lurking in Egypt, Lebanon, the safe parts of Iraq and Syrai - he came back to the village of Nazareth, And after 3 decades of dodging the powers of evil - the authorities of the world - they finally caught up with him, nailed him to a cross and killed him. Having got away with it as a baby, time ran out in the end. And they got him. They got them all in the end.

The babies of Bethlehem took Jesus's place. And in his turn, he took theirs. He joined them - one more Holy Innocent. One more weeping mother. One more insult against the face of God and the dignity and life of a human being. But this time the insult was directly to the face of God, and this time the Innocent came back.

For now, the blood of the Innocents cries out. As it does, over and over, against the horror of the systems men build to keep the powerful in their place and the weak in theirs - and they wait for the Reckoning to come. And know it will one day. And two women are joined in grief - as they will one day be joined in joy.

“A sound is heard in Ramah—
    bitter crying and great sadness.
Rachel cries for her children,   and she refuses to be comforted,
    because her children are gone.”
His mercy is from age to age, on those who fear him.
 He puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,  sends the rich away empty.

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