By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
I heard that last Sunday while I was away, Bob Hetherington laid down a challenge for me in his sermon. He mentioned the part of today’s story from the Flight into Egypt that has been omitted by the lectionary. It’s the story of the Massacre of the Innocents. It is only three verses that have been picked out. And they are three of the most brutal verses contained in our story of God’s love.
I’ve heard of other sermon challenges, like giving someone a crazy word or phrase to figure out how to incorporate into the sermon like aluminum siding or castor oil. This one is harder. But in my time with Bob Hetherington I have learned to listen to his words carefully because his wisdom is Spirit-led and powerful. So here I go.
In the start of today’s story, Joseph has been warned in a dream to get Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem. Herod was searching for them and they were in grave danger. It’s unclear exactly how long they had been in Bethlehem when they leave. But Joseph acts and is ready to care for his family.
Now here is where the part that’s left out in today’s Gospel reading falls. It fits in just after the gospel cites the prophet Hosea’s words, “Out of Egypt I have called my son”.
Verses 16-18 of the 2nd Chapter of Matthew read…
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by 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 were no more.”
So in the three verses left out of today’s reading we learn that Herod decided in order to avoid a challenge from some potential threat to his power, just recently born, he would have all the little boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and the surrounding region murdered. When you consider that Herod had three of his own sons murdered it becomes clearer that he was the very personification of darkness. But nothing can lessen the horror of this story.
Then the reading picks back up to a time after Joseph, Mary and Jesus have been in Egypt for a while. Herod has died and it is safe or sort of safe to go back. Archelaus, a surviving son of Herod and a dangerous ruler is in power in Judea. So instead of returning to Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary and Jesus end up in Galilee in the town of Nazareth.
I never heard this story of the Massacre of the Innocents as a kid growing up in the church. I discovered it as an Art History major. I honestly don’t remember which artist’s rendition I saw first. And I certainly did not pursue the image for any project or research paper. It appalled me. In preparing for today, I quickly looked over some of the paintings from the ages. Once really is enough for me. It is too hideous to bear.
The contrast of the gruesomeness of this story compared to the humble beauty of the birth narrative is stark and sickening. The atrocities that humans freely doled out to fellow humans in the days of the Roman Empire are equally dark and disturbing.
God chose to deliver his purest expression of Love to us amongst a colossal mess, in a time of great discord, in a time where holding up the dignity of fellow humans was rarely a consideration at all and certainly does not appear to be a topic much discussed amongst leaders, spiritual or political.
Through God’s grace and mercy, we humans have slowly begun the journey to living in a less vicious fashion. Through God’s grace and mercy we have often risen to protect the innocent in bold and quiet ways. Through God’s grace and mercy we have entered into hard conversations around issues of race and orientation and gender. Through God’s grace and mercy the arc of the moral universe is bending towards justice as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said.
But I think it is important for us to sit for a minute with the atrocity described in the omitted Gospel today. Infants murdered for power. A hideous crime. But the sad but the truth is that today if you turned on the news before you headed here, there was some story about something gruesome and hideous afoot in the world. Some story of the failure to uphold the worth of another person or a whole group of people. We humans still have a long way to keep bending that arc towards justice, toward a time when the dignity of every human being is lifted up and not squandered, or perverted, or put aside in pursuit of power.
Our collect today speaks of the God who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. God who in love created us. God who in infinite mercy sent Jesus into the middle of the horrors of the Holy Roman Empire to show us the way of love. And that love is bound in the dignity, the worth of every human being.
We are called to recognize that. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is a story that brings to our attention what happens when that dignity is not upheld. And I think if we are honest with ourselves and really look out around us, we can hear Rachel’s weeping still. Mothers keening for their children who are no more because someone or some whole group has failed to recognize the dignity, the inherent worth of their children. We have heard their cries from central Africa for so long, and Syria, and Central America, and closer to home from Oklahoma, and Columbine and Sandy Hook.
My bleeding heart is old enough to recognize that making each human recognize the dignity of every other human being is not possible. We are complicated creatures and our God given free will leads us into some dark territory.
But I do know that we can do better. We can look at our own daily lives and find ways in which we fall short in seeing love in others, the God given worth that everyone has. We can look out into our community and see ways in which there are people struggling to claim dignity and being denied that right. And we can look to those who are working hard to bend the arc toward justice and find ways to support them.
In a few weeks, Amy Julia Becker, a writer and speaker, will be visiting us here at St. Mary’s. Her path to finding her way and her voice in God’s story is clear and rich. She will speak to us about how she learned she had thrown up some roadblocks for herself in seeing all of God’s creation as beloved without even knowing it. And she will tell us about her vision for people learning to seek out our shared common humanity as a way for us to live more fully into God’s love. That rather than first seeing our differences, we instead see our shared, God given humanity, good things begin to happen. I encourage you to read more about her visit in the Annunciation.
Next Sunday we will stand here together and four babies will be brought to our baptismal font. We will recognize them as beloved creatures, held precious by God, their families and this community. Then we will again remember our baptismal promises – to follow in the apostle’s teachings, to turn away from darkness, to repent when we fail, to show the love of Jesus in our words and actions seeking Christ in all the people we meet, and that we will respect the dignity of every human being,
These promises are our shield and our best defense against the darkness of forces like Herod, and all those who refuse to uphold that dignity. It is the power we can claim to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, it the power we can claim to bend our own wills to more closely follow God’s will for us.
These promises do not mean that those children or you or I will not be challenged or hurt or fall victim to some grave inhumanity. Nor does it mean that we will not ourselves fail to recognize our own worth or the worth of others.
Julian of Norwich once said, “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown; that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
That same precious love. The love that created and more wonderfully restored our human nature, our worth in this Kingdom. We are all kept in that same precious love and one day, God has promised us, that we will all know it to be true.