Sermon: Sunday 28 December 2014
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
Innocent children brutally massacred because a desperate despot seeks to cling on to fragile power. Syria? Nigeria? Other war-ravaged nations? It could potentially be any number of places today, where the innocent become hostage, propaganda, collateral in wars of attrition between competing uncompromising ideologies. We do not know how many children were killed in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago, but we do know many have been wrongfully and brutally killed in those holy lands subsequently. There continues to be weeping around Ramah now as then, millennia ago. And, sadly of course, only this month over 135 children were murdered by the Taliban in Peshawar.
Today’s story, therefore, is not new news. It is painfully and obviously a modern story and not to be brushed under the carpet. Coming hot on the heels of the Christmas story, which, in its modern interpretations too easily invites us merely to coo at the birth of a baby, the massacre of the Innocents is all the more raw and shocking and probably not what we want to hear. We’d like to stay with the awe and wonder of Christmas Day, linger at the crib of God incarnate and truly sense the tingling electricity of heaven touching earth, and earth reaching out to heaven. Now we are in the muddy gritty agonising reality of human behaviour at its worst, of power and realpolitik and about as far from heaven as can be.
It’s worth noting just how quickly we move from the time-stopping almost magical event of Christmas into the painful dysfunctionality of human living. In Church terms, the day after Christmas, the feast of Stephen, finds us remembering the brutal execution of the first Christian martyr, some decades after Jesus’ death. Now, back to the first months of Jesus’ life, we have the Innocents. Soon the Magi will serenely appear, after the innocents have been murdered and the Holy Family have departed! Then, in January we celebrate Jesus’ adult baptism, before returning to the infant Jesus for the feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas. Are the compliers of the lectionary just intent on thoroughly muddling us? Surely we could be more coherent in our approach!
Well, we possibly could. But I think there is great power in this apparent haphazard ordering, seemingly randomly out of time. Because it is a timeless story, where only when we grasp the strands together do we even begin to glimpse the wonder of the whole. The juxtaposition of threads invites us to consider the Jesus’ story in its entirety. We are forced away from the tinselly fairy tale towards a much more grounded grown-up understanding of the Incarnation, which is actually present in our Christmas stories and carols, although we don’t always pay it the attention we should. The God-child became man and not only, as the scripture tells, dwelt among us, but painfully learned the best and the worst of human behaviour. He survived the massacre at Bethlehem, only to go to his death some 30 years later for similar and equally modern reasons – the interplay of power and ideology between secular and religious authorities. That first martyr, Stephen, whom we remember while still indulging in Christmas festivities, had to be silenced because he was a threat to the religious establishment. From the start to finish and beyond, the story of Jesus Christ’s human life and the lives of those he touched is shot through with pain and violence. It is not a pretty story.
So what can we learn from today’s cameo – the massacre of the Innocents? It’s a timely reminder that humans have done, and continue to do, despicable and dreadful things to the most vulnerable in society. These unnumbered innocents in Bethlehem all those years ago cry out for all children murdered or abused for others’ power or pleasure. Girls and boys sold into prostitution and slavery, forced brutal marriages, predatory sex abuse, Jimmy Savile’s victims, Baby Peter and many, many others.
And what of the survivors? Well let’s first remind ourselves that abuse takes many forms, by no means all of it physical. Emotional abuse is also a crippling burden to bear, causing, among other things, emotional paralysis and self-doubt. There will be people here who have direct experience of different forms of violence, and I have no desire to rake this up nor cannot speak for them. But we cannot shove it under the carpet, nor deny that the Church as an institution has not necessarily been well-behaved. However if we have faith, we have to make sense of it with God.
So let’s return to the Bethlehem of some 2000 years ago, for a little help in navigation around this painful topic. The death of one’s child, even if not by violence, is an undeniably painful experience which not only never leaves you, but shapes you for life and colours how you live and act. We have no record of what happened after the massacre, other than knowing that it was reported. But I venture to suggest that these mothers, like so many before and after them, while never forgetting that precious child who died, like, no doubt, some here, went on to rear children and manage families with love and determination. The same is true in our world today: the teenagers and others in Peshawar, for example, will not be bullied or beaten.
So where is God in all this? Personally, I have to say I think God is with us in the mess. That when something awful happens, whether 2000 years ago or today, and we are screaming with pain and anger, God is right there too. God understands the anger. God is angry too, when human fallibility means that innocent children are endangered and suffer. But God is also there in the moving forward, in the healing. God will help us find the words and the systems to move forward differently.
One of the Bible stories I really find difficult to buy is that of the Prodigal Son as it is often preached. This is for entirely deep personal reasons. It is a story which so easily is assumed to suggest that things can be swept under the carpet and everyone can live happily ever after. Not so, as I’m sure many here realise. But what can happen – and I venture to suggest did happen with those families in Bethlehem 2000 years ago – is that painful experiences, like any experiences, can shape us for good rather than for bad, if we will let them. Even if we never resolve everything and live with our wounds.
Some of the prisoners I worked with in jail had immense problems stemming from their childhood. One I remember particularly, Craig by name, was a remarkable individual. Born of alcoholic and drug-abusing parents, he had a loveless childhood terminating in the death of both parents, leaving him and his older sister adrift. Unsurprisingly he ended up in jail; but Craig had an amazing capacity for positive thinking, despite wracking self-doubt. He wanted to make good: he didn’t want to forget the past but he wanted to put his hand into God’s, and move forward… to wherever. He was both innocent and wise – a stunning combination!
I don’t know the end of the story: it’s not mine to know. But the point I am making is that the birth at Christmas, leading so quickly onto violence and bloodshed, speaks of God’s enduring capacity not only to walk alongside, but actively to sustain, support and transform, without ever minimising or denying the pain. We see this right the way along the walk to the Cross. No sugary-sweet wishy-washy theology there, but gritty self-determination on the part of Jesus, in an awareness that God is present in every situation, even in the silence.
Our calling, whoever we are and whatever painful experiences we may have had or will have, is to learn from the Biblical figures, many others subsequently and, of course, Jesus himself, to live our lives fully despite… And to trust that God, in God’s wisdom, will help us absorb and frame both good and bad experiences, both personal and in the wider world we live in, so that we are able, through brokenness, fragility and vulnerability, to mirror his desires and, ultimately, shine with his light. I’d like to think those women in Bethlehem did exactly that. I believe the teenagers, their families and the families of the murdered in Peshawar may do so, I know Craig did and I hope we here may do likewise.
© The Revd Alison Adams