The Holy Innocents
Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching sounds that this world knows is the cry of a mother over her dead child. More and more, of course, television cameras take us into homes that have lost a child or children to a violent death. We have seen clips of mothers too whose children are dying of hunger in parts of our world, cradling them but unable to do anything. One in 5 children in Africa today die due to dysentery or disease. Children can be abducted or sold into slavery, prostitution, armed gangs. They often die lost and largely forgotten.
In the gospel today Matthew quoted 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.
Rachel is still weeping today.
So who was this man Herod, that 2000 years ago is said to have created such tortured agony to so many parents, because he was angry he had been tricked by the magi, and was insecure about the new born child Jesus? Herod was a brutal and somewhat paranoid ruler of Judea for 34 years, voted by the Roman senate, who backed him, as "King of the Jews". At one stage he married a teenager for political reasons and banished his wife Doris and their 3 year old son in order to do it. He expanded the Temple and built many great buildings as well as developing the water supplies for Jerusalem but for all that he was not loved. The historian Josephus writes that when he was approaching death he realised that nobody would mourn him so he commanded that when he died several prominent people should be murdered straight away so that the people would actually grieve.
Of course, it is true that we are more conscious of the faults of leaders and the famous - or as the Danish proverb puts it - the more the monkey climbs up the tree, the more you see of its bottom - but this man had a lot of faults and was ruthless and unstable.
Now as you know Christians often say that Christ needs to be put back into Christmas. But it is also necessary to put the Herod back into Christmas, to save us from sentimentalising and coating in marshmallow the hard fact that Christ was born into our world, not in a warm and cosy B and B, but in a cow shed, and that before long the family were having to flee as refugees, and innocent children and innocent parents were caught up in a tragedy we can hardly express. The ironies of the Gospel are clear: the saviour needing to be saved. God-with-us, fleeing for his life. This is not "away in a manger, no crying he makes" it is a long way away from the warm manger and the pretty nativity scene. This is bloody, human history and God is caught up in it, with us - not just in beauty and nice feelings, but in pain and death and injustice. God is not just there in our better times, our better feelings, and our kinder deeds. God is wrestling around in all of us, all the time, in the dark and in the shadows.
What becomes clear is that those who follow this Christ have hard work ahead. Once you have decided which kingdom you are part of, Herod's or God's, you must begin to live in it fully and work and speak and act to end the wrongs of a Herod type rule. This will mean courageous actions sometimes, but mostly it will mean smaller, unseen or even unnoticed acts - the decision not to say the clever, cruel thing, the time spent to help someone who can't pay you back, the principled commitment that decides to stand up and be counted instead of being indifferent or politely cow-towing. The Church has things to say, sermons to preach, hymns to sing and prayers to offer. Above all, it has a life to share and this is our task as we leave that crib and go out into the unknown today.
Our banner as we take on Herod has been written by Archbishop Tutu, a man who knows that ‘Herods’ lurk in every Christmas, in every nation, in every heart:
"We give thanks to God, he writes, that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness and life is stronger than death;-that victory is ours through Jesus Christ. Might will never be right. God has made us for goodness, for love, for compassion, for peace, for laughter, for gentleness, for sharing - and God is in charge."