The Feast of Holy Innocents: Matthew 2:13-18
Merry Christmas! The gospel we just read really puts you in the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it? I asked that we read the passages for the Feast of Holy Innocents today—and as I’ve been preparing this sermon over Christmas, I started wondering if that was really a good idea. Its pretty dark stuff, isn’t it?
That is something I have been noticing about our Christmas readings and stories this season, though. They are not all peace and joy, are they? I mean, a baby born in a cold stable in the middle of a traveling nightmare? I’m sure Mary was not in the best of Christmas moods. And, then, in our readings today, that child is threatened with death and his parents flee with him, refugees and immigrants into Egypt. Sure, there are the happy shepherds and the singing angels too. But there is also a cruel king and the cruelty of poverty.
Christmas is a real mixed bag. That’s true for a lot of us, isn’t it? The holidays are hard for a lot of us. It is the time we usually—but not always--get to spend time with family and eat good food and take time off from school and work. It is also the time we remember loved ones we have lost, the time we see the empty chairs at our tables. It is sometimes the time we remember what could have been and it is sometimes a time where it is easy to feel lonely. And, sometimes, honestly, it is tense and boring and you just want the holidays over with.
So that dark story of today—the day we remember the children slaughtered by Herod. There is no other historical record of the children of Bethlehem being slaughtered outside of Matthew, but there is a lot of historical evidence of the cruelty of Herod the Great during his time as the Roman crowned “king of the Jews”. He is best known for the murder of his own sons—there was a saying at the time of Herod that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.
I don’t think we can imagine what it might have been like in Bethlehem under Herod. Sitting in this church, it is hard to imagine what it would be like to be a mother in Herod’s Judea. To fear for your child. To fear that they would die of starvation in the land of bread. To fear that they would be murdered by soldiers. To fear that they would never grow up.
That world can seem very far away.
And sometimes it can seem really close. This day was once “the Children’s Mass” in medieval churches. It was also the subject of the many gospel mystery plays in medieval England. The song we often sing during this season is “The Coventry Carol”—the theme song of a travelling play in Coventry. It was written to be the song of the mothers of Bethlehem saying goodbye to their dying children. “By, by, thou little tiny child…” It’s a haunting song, a song that keeps running through my head this advent season. For mothers in Coventry, during civil unrest and civil war in England, singing about their dying children must have seemed very close indeed.
There is something that makes me uncomfortable about this day and how we remember it, though. We call it the feast of Holy Innocents. We paint pictures of pretty children in the arms of pretty mothers. We pray only for “the innocents.” We have this ideal in Western culture of the innocence of children—or at least some children.
In the time of Herod’s Judea, this was not true. Children were not viewed as innocents, but as subordinates in a culture dominated by Roman hierarchy. The life of a child was not valued, nor was that life considered innocent. And, lets be honest. The children of Bethlehem were the kids of peasants, the kids of nobodies, the kids of tax collectors (the ancient equivalent of drug dealers perhaps), the kids of slaves, the kids of thieves. Dangers to his throne, to his power. Thugs in the making. Who really cared if they died? Who said they were innocent?
We live in a time, I think, where we only sympathize with lives lost if we believe they were innocent. It is easy for us to sympathize with the two police officers who were killed last week, to sympathize with the tragic loss of life and loss to their children. But we don’t have much sympathy for those we consider non-innocent.
And the kids I work with on the streets of Aberdeen are not innocent. That is, in the eyes of society—they steal and they fight and they deal—all to survive, yes, but that means that they are not innocent. If they end up spending more time in jail than out, or if they end up in the hospital, or if they end up dead, no one really cares too much. We always find a way to say that they deserved it. They were punks, or thugs, or undesirables anyway.
I’m gonna speak as the young person I am for a minute, a young person who is white, and who didn’t have to steal to eat growing up, who is the granddaughter of two police officers. I’m not sure my parent’s generation understands just how scary and just how hard it is for young people, and especially for those still in their teens. We, even those of us who had a pretty good childhood and didn’t have to steal or run drugs, we wonder if we have a future. We wonder if we’ll ever find a decent job. We wonder what kind of world we are going to have to live in. And when we look around us at the world we’ve inherited, it scares a whole lot of us.
This has been the year of young people starting to speak and to voice their pain. This has been the year of record numbers of young men and women fleeing across our southern borders as corrupt governments and warlords take over parts of central America. This has been the year of young black men and women taking to the streets, many of them junior high and high school students, and saying #BlackLivesMatter. It has been a year, perhaps more than any other in the U.S., when young men and women have cried out their fears for the future. And their hope too, their hope and longing for a better world.
This has also been a year, perhaps as every year is, of dead kids in our streets. Or on our borders. In the last fifteen years, 6000 bodies have been found in the desert between Mexico and the U.S., and many of them were children. And about 500 people a year die of police violence according to incomplete statistics, and too many of them are black children and teens. And then there are the names of the children and teens and young adults just in the past few months: Mike Brown, Tamir Rice (only 12 years old), Akai Gurley, Kajieme Powell, Keith Vidal, and we could go on.
I want to say something. I don’t want to preach about this. There is a part of me that just wants to forget all about this. But it’s the cry of Rachel, weeping for her children, that drives me to say something. I can’t forget the sobbing of Mike Brown’s mother when the announcement of no indictment was read and she said; “They never cared. And they ain’t never gonna care.”
See, our victims are not innocent. Mike Brown was smoking weed and had mouthed off to an officer. Tamir Rice was a big kid and was playing with a toy gun. We always find a way to say that they deserved it. They were punks and thugs.
They were also teenagers. And children.
Here, in our majority white town, in our majority white churches, we don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about. Especially not about race. But what about my Latino uncle who tells me that he is harassed while brown all the time in LA? Or my cousin’s little boy who is already learning what it means to be black in America? We need to listen to the young voices all over this country who are saying the same thing. That racism is real. That young black people are targets.
We are uncomfortable talking about it. A friend and fellow priest of mine in Seattle put up a banner on their church that said “Black Lives Matter.” And on Christmas, it was torn down and vandalized. We are uncomfortable and even hostile when talking about race.
On this feast of Holy Innocents, on this day of Children’s Mass, though, we as a country are going to have to start listening to our young people. And the cries of their mothers.
It can be scary to listen. It can be scary to see the rage and the anger of young people who have nowhere to go and no better life waiting for them. It can be scary to see the level of grief and brokenness. Herod, in his fear, responded with violence, and we’ve seen that too as some of our cities and towns look like military zones. But God, God listened. God listened and I have to believe that God cried and raged too.
So, I am inviting us to listen, on this feast of Holy Innocents, on this day of the Children’s Mass—to listen to Rachel weeping for her children. And to listen to our young people. To listen to our kids. In Aberdeen. Did you know that the largest demographic in Aberdeen are kids under the age of 25? And in Ferguson and NYC. In Monte and Elma, and in San Antonio and Nogales. Lets remember the angel’s call; “Do not be afraid,” and let us listen for the hope of a new and different world. It was God who became a child who came to save us. Let us hear God now in the voices of our children.