Psalm 2 , Psalm 26 ;
Isaiah 49:13-23 ; Matthew 18:1-14
Psalm 19 , Psalm 26 ; Isaiah 54:1-13 ; Mark 10:13-16
It’s Christmas! Even though most of the world has packed Christmas up for another year (or are in the process thereof), Advent people are in the middle of the Christmas season, one of the most joyous, happy, wonderful times of the year. We’ve just celebrated the birth of the messiah and remembered St. Stephen the first martyr whose feast day was mentioned in “Good King Wenceslaus.” We look forward to the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany in about nine days, but right in the middle of this joy, anticipation, and celebration the church plops a commemoration that is hard to stomach.
We know Herod as the king of Israel, appointed by Rome and not tremendously popular among the people over whom he ruled. He must have felt some tenuousness about his reign since he was always looking over his shoulder to see who might be sneaking up with a knife aimed at his back. He had a number of wives but one especial favorite whom he had killed because he suspected her of plotting against him. He had a number of his children killed for the same reason. Anybody who threatened his throne was a legitimate target in his eyes, and so when told of a miracle baby born in Bethlehem, the royal seat of David’s reign and line, who might have a more legitimate claim to the throne of Israel than Herod himself, paranoia said that such must be dealt with and quickly. To make sure he got the right one, he had all male babies in Bethlehem under the age of two years murdered. Better perhaps twenty or thirty children should die than for a legitimate contender for the crown come back in a dozen and a half years or so to press his claim. So the baby boys of Bethlehem had to go.
There is not much evidence that this incident really happened, although given Herod’s mental state, it wouldn’t have been totally impossible. Still, it isn’t mentioned outside the gospel of Matthew. Josephus the historian, who apparently had a really strong dislike if not hatred for Herod, never mentioned such an event which would certainly have poked a finger in the eye (or the already bad reputation) of such a monster as one who would kill innocent children along with suspected usurpers and the like. But if it didn’t happen, why would Matthew have added it? Perhaps he needed a way to get Jesus to Egypt from where he could emerge, even if still a small child, in the steps of Moses the great leader of the Israelites? Who knows?
Meanwhile we’re left to ponder a terrible, sickening story in the midst of a happy season of celebration. It really seems to hit too close to the bone, especially given the number and seriousness of the slaughter of the innocents in our own day, both here and abroad. It’s been just over a year since the school shooting at Sandy Hook where twenty small children just starting their lives were slaughtered by a gunman who also killed six adults. The names of similar tragedies are engraved on our consciousness: Columbine, the Amish school shooting, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, and the list goes on. That is just a small list of murders that took place in what should have been a safe place, namely their schools. No children were killed in 1999 when a gunman walked into a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles and opened fire, but anyone seeing the live or taped coverage probably remembers seeing the terror of the children running from the scene. Four young African-American girls were killed and 22 others injured inside their church in Birmingham, Alabama, when a bomb exploded just outside the room where they were meeting. Shouldn’t a church or a synagogue or a day care center be a place of safety?
How many stories of children lying in their beds dead because of stray bullets fired and missing their target only to penetrate the wall of their bedroom and kill them as they lay there? What does it take before we tell the Herods of this world that enough is enough? Simply a case of, “Oh, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” but who gets to make that choice? People simply going about their daily lives shouldn’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time, they should be able to get on with their day without someone else making a decision that they personally feel threatened or angry or disrespected and need to take out their frustration on people who haven’t done a thing wrong except be alive and in someone else’s perceived way.
Herod’s perceived reason was to protect his power, his authority. Most violence is about power, either gaining it or maintaining it. Murder to avenge some real or perceived wrong is an attempt to regain power and control, and what if some innocent gets caught in the middle? The military in a combat situation would call it “collateral damage,” but is that what children caught in the crossfire or made targets simply to hurt others really are? Herod wouldn’t have thought of the grief of the parents of those innocents; after all, he killed a number of his own children not to mention his favorite wife simply because he felt they were plotting against him.
Maybe what we need to do on this commemoration of a day where the story is about murdered children is to think about what kind of world children of the world today really face. There are children in Africa who have to witness the murder of their parents and their own forced induction into an armed conflict when they are barely strong enough to hold a gun much less use it. Girls around the world are raped and tortured simply because they are girls. One young woman, Malala Yousefzai, was shot in the head and left for dead simply because she espoused the right of girls to be educated and not just treated as chattels. The list goes on and on, and it never seems to get any shorter. And what are we doing about it? Hand-wringing and “Oh, dear,” and even “My prayers are with them” isn’t enough. Sometimes prayer has to be augmented with action, and that action has to start with facing the Herods and shielding the innocents.
Today I need to do just one thing to say “No” to Herod. Perhaps it’s to write to my congressional representatives or make a contribution to help fund a safe place for children where they can be cared-for and nurtured and not thrust into a violent world with no protection. I need to remember that action can be prayer made visible. That’s something to think about. Maybe that should be my Christmas present to Jesus? No wrapping required.