Today’s feast of Holy Innocents is an alternative in our church’s lectionary. For we could use other readings today. Perhaps some of us would feel more comfortable with them. After all, today’s Gospel is a tale of terror. It speaks about Jesus as a refugee. It tells of immense political violence. It recounts the massacre of children. What kind of a ‘good news’ and Christmas is this?...
Well, actually, it is very much a ‘good news’ story: both for our own day and for eternity.
Let me briefly share three things which are important about today’s Gospel reading: three things which make the otherwise terrifying feast of Holy Innocents a vital element of Christmas good news….
Secondly, today’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as a refugee. Now that is not a very common picture of Jesus. It is also, in some quarters, not a popular one. For it has humanitarian, and political consequences. Can you see why our Church, with others, is so strong about our responsibilities and care of refugees and asylum seekers? It is a reflection of the heart of God, the heart of Christmas, revealed in today’s Gospel story. And it is central to the whole Gospel story as told by St Matthew. For it is not surprising that this story is told at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. We are often think of God in more glorious terms: as king, almighty father, lord, almighty power, and so on. This is also part of Matthew’s story. Yet such terms only matter to him because they help give power to the poor, to the needy, and the outcast. God, says Matthew again and again in his Gospel: God in Jesus identifies with the victim, the powerless and the abused. Sharing their lives, he sets them, and all of us, free. So let us not be amazed that, in the Gospel, one of the very first titles for Jesus is refugee. Instead, let us renew the heart of Christmas: our commitment to Christ the refugee.
Thirdly, and most crucially, today’s Gospel reading ia about setting the horrors of human history in the context of eternity. Thereby we find unconquerable hope, even in the face of the worst of circumstances. Perhaps we do not always see this as clearly as the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel. For they were mostly early Jewish followers of Jesus. They were soaked in the Hebrew scriptures and its great stories. When they heard a story like this in Matthew’s Gospel they immediately grasped its Hebrew and eternal dimensions. For Matthew’s Gospel again and again uses a theological and story-telling device known as recapitulation. This is also found, in altered form, in music and some scientific theory. With recapitulation, great light on the meaning of something is given by repetition of certain features., since the full significance of something is partly derived from considering its origins. In other words, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel, recapitulation tells us that what was, is now, and will be for ever. Time is not a straight line: one thing after another. Time is more like a spiral. Its meaning is deepened by sacred recapitulation of certain features. Just as God does not live here, or there, but in everywhere, so God does not simply live in the past, or in the present, or in the future: God lives, so to speak, in the everywhen. What God has done before, he is therefore doing again now, and will do again in the future. This is central to the hope of the Christian Gospel.
When the first hearers of the Gospel heard today’s terrible story, they heard it as a story of hope and liberation. For they heard it as the same story as the greatest of all the previous stories of the Hebrew people. They heard it as the recapitulated story of the Exodus from Egypt. ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ is the crucial phrase: just as God brought suffering people out of slavery in Egypt, so, this recapitulated story tells us, God will bring suffering people out of oppression in Jesus’ day, and in every day. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew wants to make it quite clear: Jesus is like Moses, only greater. In Jesus, the hope and liberation of Moses is recapitulated. Such hope comes with even greater love and power: not just for the children of Israel but for all God’s children who are suffering. In this way, the tears of Rachel and of all betrayed mothers and fathers were, are and will be heard: through the God who suffers among us and who leads out of slavery and destruction into his eternal life. So let us renew the heart of Christmas: our commitment to the hope and liberation we find in God.
Today’s Gospel reading may indeed therefore be uncomfortable but it is also vital. It reminds us that Christmas is not about escaping reality but about finding God in the heart of all reality, in its terrors as well as its comforts. It reminds us that God is found in the seemingly powerless, not least in the person of Christ the refugee: in the power of love, not the love of power It reminds us that hope and liberation are gifts of God for the here and now, and for the times to come, as well as for the past. It reminds us that God is the God of all people, bringing light out of the worst of human darkness.
Can we share that Gospel, the good news of God’s hope and recapitulation in the face of terror? If you want a wonderful example of how to do so, Pope Francis is certainly leading the way. I recommend that you read his Christmas message for this year. It is a powerful cry for mercy and for hope in the very spirit of today’s Gospel reading. Like today’s Gospel, Pope Francis spoke out for all God’s children who are victims of violence: ‘under our very eyes’ as he puts it. And, like today’s Gospel he demanded an end to ‘brutal persecution’ worldwide “Truly there are so many tears’, he said. Visibly moved and departing from his text, the Pope noted ‘the children massacred by bombardments, including where the son of God was born’ and their ‘powerless silence that cries under the sword’ in so many places. And, like today’s Gospel, the Pope recalled for our world the ‘too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly’. Such recapitulation is not just a record of today’s terrible violence and massacres of the innocent. It is also a call to prayer and to hope in God. After all, Pope Francis continues to embody such hope and liberation in his actions; going out of his way to share, especially, with children, with the poor, and the outcast. Indeed, this Christmas, the main thing he did was to ring up Iraqi Christians in a refugee camp. ‘You are like Jesus on Christmas night’, he told them, ‘there was no room for him either, and he had to flee to Egypt later to save himself,’ God’s message however ‘is stronger than darkness and corruption.’
So may we too respond to the Pope’s call, to ‘overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation.’ May we too embody the power of love in Christ the refugee and help God recapitulate his ultimate victory. In the name of the Christ-child, eternal light in all our darkness. Amen.