Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity;who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
God in Trinity, eternal unity of perfect love: gather the nations to be one family, and draw us into your holy life through the birth of Emmanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son shared at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: help your Church to live as one family, united in love and obedience, and bring us all at last to our home in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favour to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely’;
and he became their saviour
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights.
2 Praise him, all you his angels; ??
praise him, all his host.
3 Praise him, sun and moon; ??
praise him, all you stars of light.
4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, ??
and you waters above the heavens.
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord, ??
for he commanded and they were created.
6 He made them fast for ever and ever; ??
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, ??
you sea monsters and all deeps;
8 Fire and hail, snow and mist, ??
tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;
9 Mountains and all hills, ??
fruit trees and all cedars;
10 Wild beasts and all cattle, ??
creeping things and birds on the wing;
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, ??
princes and all rulers of the world;
12 Young men and women,
old and young together; ??
let them praise the name of the Lord.
13 For his name only is exalted, ??
his splendour above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up the horn of his people
and praise for all his faithful servants, ??
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’
‘I will put my trust in him.’
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
Sermon on First Sunday of Christmass
How many actually believe this story of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is literally true? I ask this because yesterday was the commemoration of the Innocents and today we have read the account from Matthew. I also ask this because as I was flitting about for some help, I came across a blog which asked “Is the slaughter of the innocents true?” So now you know why I am asking this question today.
Who believes in the literal truth of this story? Well, I for one, do not believe it literally, but I do believe it should speak to us today – and that, I am sure, is a completely different proposition.
Let’s begin with this statement:
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked [by the wise men], he was infuriated.”
This places the story right in our own time, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t we all a bit like Herod at times? Don’t we all get so upset when things don’t go to our own precise plan? I wonder, were there arguments in your house on Christmass Day when someone crossed someone else – when someone did not get their own way? Isn’t this the same thing (but on a very much smaller, and more innocent, scale)? Isn’t the same thing happening today that happened in Jerusalem and Bethlehem all those years ago, when those sages from the East visited Herod, when he wanted them to return to him to tell him the whole story? But they did not return to Herod and Herod had a royal tantrum. He got so mad that he condemned babies to death. It would seem that his fury knew no bounds.
Why? – Why did Herod go on the rampage?
That internet piece I read pointed me in the direction for an answer to this historical question. The writer described Herod in all his parts, good and bad – that is, those parts he could touch through written records. After all, written evidence is so much more easily accepted than guesswork, when it comes to history and biography. And that is the proof upon which my blogger depended.
As a matter of fact this blogger suggested that Herod should really be called “The Great” because of the public work projects he completed. One such project was the port of Caesarea which features in later history. This port was constructed by Herod along that straight coast of the Levant, that area in which there is no natural harbour. So we can all agree that he did some good in his time. But ……
On the negative side, we need to remember that the house of Herod was one of great, internal conflict, for in the manner of eastern potentates, Herod had many wives and there were many children, and quite a few sons. All of them had a claim to the throne. Such were the times, that there were plots and counter-plots – I suppose the gossip of the court read much like the news reports from parliament today, or the English court gossip of the medieval period. (Just imagine the rumours in Henry VIII’s court!) Everyone wanted the prize of the throne, but Herod, like so many political figures, was not one to give it up to anyone – and I don’t think anyone was disposed to wait until it was handed down. Herod believed everyone wanted to usurp him. What to do? My blogger said that Herod had those pretenders to the throne killed – that he killed his own children. Imagine that!
When we read that “all the children” had been slaughtered, we imagine hundreds of children – perhaps even thousands of children – were killed in Herod’s pogrom. Someone had done some statistical studies on the area over which Herod ruled, and specifically they looked at the region of Bethlehem. They estimated the population, and with actuarial tables came to the conclusion that there were probably only about a dozen boys of under two years of age in the whole region – who might have been killed at that time. So the later, medieval picture which we inherited of hundreds, perhaps thousands of murdered children is an extreme exaggeration. However, this memory is one of the utter desolation of the bereaved, the story of one man’s inhumanity. How could a father condemn his own, or anyone else’s, babes in arms to death? Why would a king kill so many innocents?
However, I think it is very easy to believe this story of massacre against the name of Herod – that tyrant who wanted to keep the throne at all costs, in spite of those great public works, but because of the byzantine machinations in the privacy of the palace. I think that is the real background to the story. I think that is how the history of the slaughter of the innocents came about. Herod was a paranoid tyrant who wanted to keep everything for himself.
When they took that different counsel and fled homeward far from Herod, wouldn’t those dark machinations of the palace lead to the story of his purported killing of any young boy-child. So was the story we have in Matthew a conflation of what happened in the palace and the fear of the populace?
The truth is – Herod does kill children. That is a fact. But did he go after the King of Kings globally? Did Herod pursue the child whom we adore as the saviour of the world? In that madness, did Herod eliminate so many tens or thousands of children? I don’t think it matters whether that number is historically accurate. However, I do think it matters to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that such a human delusion is chronicled in the mythos of the Church. This story of the fury of Herod must be comprehended in the light of our Christmass Day’s reading of the Gospel of John. We heard, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness of Herod’s madness did not destroy the light of the world, and we remember its victory through the story of the massacre of the innocents.
It just struck me that perhaps we might want to remember the innocents in another spelling – instead of “cents” we need to replace it with “cence”. I think we need to remember that the child in our own hearts is ever at risk from persecution by the world around us. Perhaps we should flee with that child to the desert in order to preserve it. Certainly we should defend the child in us just as Joseph and Mary obeyed that voice for Jesus’ sake as did the Magi.