Our Gospel reading today is one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament to deal with for several reasons. It is widely known as the Slaughter of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod's murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top. Part of our abhorrence at the passage of course is simply the idea that a ruler of a nation would order the massacre of little children and babies; but it is utterly astonishing that this passage could come so close to and in fact just after our celebration of the birth of Jesus who brings the promise of healing, restoration and salvation to the world. How on earth can we hold these two things together?
To begin we need to understand that Herod's brutality was legendary as the 1st century historian Josephus recorded. In the passage itself, Matthew writes that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and "he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under" (2:16). Already, we’re given our first hint about having to hold together Jesus’s coming into the world and the stark reality of violence we see around us. We live, as I’ve said before, ‘in between times’ the already of Jesus’s coming and the ‘not yet’ of the final consummation when all of us will be gathered to him completely. But what does this mean? Well it means that there is a reason, some reason that we have all been given time – your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, grand children, even great grandchildren – that all things weren’t completed with Jesus’s death and resurrection i.e. that time simply didn’t end there.
The tremendously difficult part of this (especially for those who suffer brutal losses) is that we’re often left wondering how or why God could allow something that seems to defy God’s love for us to occur. After all, some of the things that we know have happened in history, let alone our own lives have consequences that will sometimes shatter our beliefs, hopes and dreams, and leave us wailing with Rachel, as Matthew puts it, with the parents of those children massacred by Herod, with those snuffed out in the furnaces of the holocaust, crushed by the Ottoman Empire, or civil warfare, or thrown into pits body upon body in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda or Burundi, or murdered in homes or on the streets of Toronto for money, or drugs, or sex or uncontrolled rage.
Now if Jesus were just a man who said nice spiritual things that we could follow in some way, or if he were God masquerading as a human, then I’m afraid that in fact the horrific events I’ve just described could only point to a world and to a human race that is rotten at its core. Why? Because the good acts of some people simply cannot overcome the consequences of the distortions in what it means to be a good human being or to live a good and faithful life that our history bears. These consequences are shared by all people and they’re referred to in Scripture as sin. But nor would it fit with God’s having created ‘good people’ if he was the one who had to end up exercising power to compel their love and obedience.
For when God created all things out of nothing, he made them all good. And because God is good, good is what all things must become. The catch is that goodness is concrete acts of living not for one’s own self, but for others. We know this because even when human beings turned away from God and made themselves the focus of their own love, bringing a cascade of consequences that often tears our relationships and our lives apart, God himself sent his Son, Jesus, who willingly and freely gave up his own life on the Cross to reconcile us to relationship with him and with one another. Therefore, we know what a good human life is: it is a life of willingly giving of ourselves for the sake of relationship with others. And we know why this is a good human life: because it points to who God is and thus to goodness itself. And so to the sure hope we have as Christians that God is making all things good in and through Jesus, even if we can’t always or ever see the fruit of God’s own labor in this matter.
This of course is the incarnation that we are in the process of celebrating. In theological terms, God sent Jesus into the world not thereby changing himself, but radically changing the world. That is, by coming into the world as the one who is eternally both fully human and fully God he is arranging what makes up this particular stretch of time – our human relationships – to his own life: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. An existence and an act of pure love for God and neighbor. In practical terms this means that his own life death and resurrection is where all of our lives, in each of their particular struggles, sufferings, premature and or atrocious deaths, learnings, transformations, understandings, joys and ends, find their existence and their meaning.
But as we’ve seen, this reconciliation is not instantaneous. It’s actually a sort of repairing of the very fabric of our reality (what we call time) that creates a space for relationships that help us to recognize, learn about, tell about and thereby willingly be drawn near to God.
How do we know this? Well our passage tells us fairly explicitly. The passage makes reference to events that happened in Israel’s past, showing that each of the three parts of the gospel--the flight to Egypt, the killing of the children, and the settling in Nazareth--fulfilled prophetic words. I’ll focus on just the first two here. If you recall Egypt plays prominently in the life of the Israelites. First Joseph ends up in Egypt after having been left by his own family who stripped him and leave him for dead in a cistern … remind you of anyone? He is treated as royalty for a time by pharaoh. But by the time of Moses, with the Israelites in slavery ill treated by the Egyptians, God has condemned both Pharaoh and Egypt with plagues. He then calls his ‘first-born’ (Israel) out of Egypt, led by Moses. Well this of course parallels Joseph and Mary’s escape with Jesus, from Herod’s clutches: to Egypt they flee and seek refuge; but so too out of Egypt will they go obediently following God’s calling. Jesus’s life, his protection, is foreshadowed by the protection afforded Joseph out of whose line will come Jesus himself. But so too is Egypt’s redemption, a redemption to be afforded to all as promised to Abraham, fulfilled with Jesus’s death and resurrection. This fulfillment of history in Jesus therefore points both back in time, and forward in time to Jesus as the center or goal of time and history. It also shows us though, that Jesus in a sense both makes history and gives it a meaning that someone living at a given time could scarcely imagine.
In the second passage cited in our Matthew reading, Jeremiah records his vision with tears of lamentation as he watches not only the city of Jerusalem being destroyed, but innocent children being slaughtered in the Babylonian invasion. He imagines, with his poetic vision, that Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is weeping for her descendants, her children. Rachel becomes the ancestral representative of all those mothers in the land who wept for their little children. But his lamentation is in the middle of four chapters, Jeremiah 30-33, that are filled with comfort and consolation and joy. These chapters look beyond the grief of death to the dawn of a new age that will come with the Messiah’s coming, One whom Jeremiah calls the Branch. And with that new age there will be a New Covenant that will pave the way for everlasting peace and righteousness. Out of the chaos of violence and death at the hands of wicked rulers there would come a New Covenant, bringing forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life.
Following this idea of God’s ordering history, the early church preached that the infants, in their deaths, were the first martyrs for Jesus Christ. Far from insignificant babes lost in the plot of the life of a more significant story, Jesus’s life, death and resurrection elevates the lives of children to the pinnacle of Christian witness, celebrated by Christians for thousands of subsequent years: martyrs for Christ.
Although of course not aware, and so not willing martyrs, these children’s lives are not insignificantly brief moments; but are rather joined in Christ with others across time who have suffered similar fates as a witness of judgment against the evil consequences of sin and Jesus’s own overcoming this on the Cross. And just here, we find not reason, or explanation for the suffering that would have been caused the family and friends of those murdered; but rather the sure promise that suffering and death are not the final end of our lives. Our lives find their meaning in Jesus Christ because they have their very existence in him: “see the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away … see I am making all things new since I am the beginning and the end (Rev 21:4-5)” Jesus says.
So then if what we have been handed on as the gospel is true – that Jesus in his life, death and resurrection has reconciled our relationship with God – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, then we know what it means to be a human being living for an extended time. We know this involves a process of learning through participation in all sorts of relationships and in various forms of learning to come to know God. To come to know, in him, what is good; so that we can willingly give ourselves to one another for the sake of pointing to or witnessing to Jesus who gives purpose and meaning to our own lives and to our relationship with others. AMEN.