Sermons That Work

This Is A Time of Year…, Holy Innocents – 1996

December 28, 1996


This is a time of year — and for some of us, a specific feast — in which children get a lot of attention. Today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the unspeakable preciousness of children, for at times our world does little to value or protect them.

In her new book written with Luci Shaw, Winter Song, Madeleine L’Engle reflects on the reality of the Christ child then and now:

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the Earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn —
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time of love to be born?
The inn is full on planet earth,
Any by a comet the sky is torn —
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The readings for today give us a glimpse into the mystery of suffering. Rachel mourns her children; Christians are promised a new heaven and a new earth; innocent children are massacred. Pain and evil are the bad news that precede the good news. Each of us has reasons to weep and mourn. But there is a word for us that echoes the promise to Rachel, the good news that God speaks in Jesus Christ, who declares that sin and death will not hold sway, that God does not inflict pain, but seeks to gather us all into the new Jerusalem, where there will be no tears or crying.

Christmas celebrates, among other things, the vulnerability of God who took the full risk — to be born as a frail infant and to take whatever came after that of being mortal. For God to take that risk rather than coming among us as a thundering avenger or an incipient angel is the strange and wondrous paradox in which the nativity is shrouded. We are called to see the Christ child with our human eyes and to celebrate his birth under the harshest conditions: in a country occupied by foreign invaders, in winter, in the dirty manger of a crowded inn, his mother unattended by family.

The situation of our children today is also a paradox, for despite all the emphasis we as a culture put on family, one out of four children is born into poverty in the United States. According to the Children’s Defense Fund the “slow, grinding violence of poverty takes an American child’s life every fifty-three minutes.” We have cause to wonder if the holy family would find our society any more congenial than that of Herod’s kingdom: we too have a slaughter of innocents.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents brings out the paradoxical nature of the Christmas season, just as God’s love for us and presence in our lives are a constant interplay of paradoxes. At Christmastide we touch and enter God’s presence in the vulnerability of a tiny child, in the pain and the rejoicing in the act of giving birth. We remind ourselves of our own fundamental dependency on God and of God’s nearness in our most vulnerable moments: failure, danger, starvation, threat of war. At Christmas, as at Easter, we celebrate the gift of God’s continuing promise, the junction of the hope of the past, present, and future.

The children’s book, How Jesus Came, by Thomas Wahl, illustrates the most popular images of this season: Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth; Joseph in his workshop; the shepherds in the fields; the bright star in the night; and the visit of the three wise men. Herod is also there, a large and evil man with glowering eyes and large knife in his hand. The next illustration shows women pleading while soldiers prepare to stab their babies.

When this book first appeared there were criticisms of its depiction of the slaughter of the innocents. Does such violence belong in a Christmas book! Here the temptation is to run away from the evil and never look back. But this is not the Christmas story. And turning away from evil will not help our children.

What better way to honor today’s feast than by supporting children who need our help? Every newspaper, magazine and television report describes children as victims of war, casualties of their parents, starving to sickness or to death, abused by pornographers, the victims of violence inflicted by those who should love them the most of all. This litany shows that children still have plenty of Herods to fear. We fail the children and we fail ourselves when we do not reach out to the victims of today’s Herods. What is the incarnation saying to these children? Can we find a way to bear the message?

Today’s holy innocents are the frightened children in Belfast and Bosnia, the starving children in Rwanda, the orphans in El Salvador, the abused children in our own neighborhood. The list can be expanded to include single mothers struggling to feed their child, the mentally ill, the elderly — all who are innocent and neglected. What can we do to insure their human dignity, assuage their fear, dry their tears? To stand with Rachel and the mourning parents of Herod’s realm is to face the fact of suffering and evil in the world and to ask, “Where is God in all this?”

This season of the incarnation invites us to take our place within the mystery of suffering and be transformed. It is not a matter of political opinion but of radical conversion. It is not about ideological posture but identification with the Christ who identified with the most vulnerable, marginal, disenfrancished ones — especially the poor and the children of the poor and all the children at risk everywhere.

The Church is called to require of the larger society the just and careful nurturing of our children. The Church is called to be a fellowship of Marys and Josephs protecting the Christ who is among us as a helpless child.

This is a day to remember those for whom the holidays are times of anguish. A day to remember those for whom family life is wounding. It is a day to consider our vocation to protect and nurture children. It is a day to revisit the sponsors’ promises at baptism of children. It is a day that shows us God as refugee, as vulnerable and dependent for justice. Incarnation requires of us that we strive to build structures and institutions that protect the child.

For the sake of the Christ and of his little ones we have work to do.

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