In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents; known in older English as ‘Childermas’, the Mass of the Children, as Christmas is the Mass of Christ. It is noteworthy that the joyful feast of Christmas is followed immediately by the feast of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, on the 26th, and then by two more feasts of martyrs with Holy Innocents today and Thomas of Canterbury tomorrow. The joy of Christianity cannot be separated in this life from the fact of martyrdom and suffering. We see this fundamental fact in today’s Gospel lesson, which comes from very close to the beginning of the first book in the New Testament, St. Matthew’s Gospel. We see the same fact throughout the New Testament epistles, culminating in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, which tells both of the martyrs of Christ and also of the glories of heaven. Crosses and crowns are ever mixed; or in today’s case, crosses and cradles, Herod’s soldiers and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. The blood of the innocent children foreshadows Christ’s cross and martyrs.
And at the center of this story is a great, powerful, selfish, and frightened man, Herod the Great. For more than thirty years Herod has ruled Israel with skill and diplomacy. He gotten along with the Romans, kept Israel peaceful and fairly contented, and rebuilt the Jerusalem temple in a grand style. His countrymen were notoriously unruly and difficulty, but he has maintained order and prosperity with a combination of ruthlessness and true political ability.
A number of commentators have noted that the massacre of the innocents fits very much Herod’s known, historical character. Herod hears from the wise men rumors that a messiah has been born. This rumor would concern Herod, because he himself is not of the royal line of David nor by birth even Jewish. He is an Edomite who married the granddaughter of the last of the Maccabees, the priestly family who led Israel for much of the time between the Old and New Testament periods. A descendant of David would have a better claim to Herod’s throne than he, and that would concern him. His known ruthlessness is consistent with willingness to kill many innocent babies for the sake of eliminating one real, potential threat.
From the world’s point of view Herod’s action is ruthless but understandable. Herod brought peace to an area that has known precious little peace in its history. With peace came the preconditions for prosperity -- for the plenty and employment that rescue the mass of people from hunger and misery. Why should Herod allow all that he has built be threatened by what he must surely view as the mad dreams of messiahs and God’s kingdom-come? For a successful man of the world such as Herod the messianic dreams of his more religious subjects were pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. Worse, they were dangerous dreams, that might stir up rebellions and religious passions which might bring in the Romans, upset the economy, and threaten not only his dynasty but also his people’s prosperity. What were the lives a hundred or so little children to all of that? In the balances surely Herod did the right thing? Surely a few deaths, however regrettable, were more than outbalanced by all the good that they bought. Herod might even accept our designation of these children as martyrs: they were martyrs to the greater good of the nation. Herod might well paraphrase a later realistic politician of his nation, Caiaphas, and say, ‘It is expedient for us, that a few should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.’ (St. John xi.50) Herod acts for the greater good of the greater number.
Now, having heard me explain how Herod might have justified his action, do you see how easy it is to become a mass murderer? Do you see how plausible, smooth, and sensible it is to slip into killing, so long as it goes on outside our immediate sight? We can claim the greater good, we can even claim that in a sense it is good for those who die, that for the sake of peace or prosperity or the whole country some should die. It is sad. It is regrettable. But so long as we do not have to watch, some may be allowed to die.
And let us not dare become smug in this matter. The most civilized nation on earth -- the nation of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the nation of Leibniz and Kant, the nation of Dürer and Matthias Grünewald -- put people into cattle cars and gas ovens. Our own nation averts its eyes as a million unborn children every year are -- regrettably, reluctantly -- killed. And we tolerate judges and politicians who tell us that this -- of course regrettable -- situation is necessary and that it is the economy that matters. I cannot see how they are any better than Herod, except that Herod has a bad press in the gospels. You may be sure that St. Matthew could never get a job with the New York Times.
The point of course in Herod’s day and ours is a failure of love -- a failure to love and honor God and our neighbor. Herod is frightened by a threat to his power, so he fails to honor the lives of Bethlehem’s children as given by God, the Lord and Giver of life. He values many things, many of which are genuinely good and valuable; but he neglects the one thing needful. He is looking so hard after his kingdom that the kingdom of God passes him by. He is a realistic, this-worldly politician, whose name becomes a byword for murder and wickedness. He realistically struggles to keep the Romans at bay, but thirty years later Pontius Pilate is governor in Jerusalem. He struggles to preserve peace, and in the next generation peace is repeatedly shattered by rebellions and wars. His worldly wisdom is made foolish by the wisdom of God, and he is left with nothing but a bad name and failed policies.And so it always is. When we fail in love and do not love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves, then everything we achieve and gain in our selfishness will turn to ashes and bitterness. If Herod had had a generous heart, opened to the possibility that God sought to work something great in Bethlehem, what might have been? We will never know, of course. But if Herod had sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, I am sure that he would not have lost in this world either. I have known women who have had abortions because, they tell me, in genuine agony, they just could not manage. I cannot greatly blame them, given the pressures they are subjected to and the circumstances that often cloud what should be clear.
But I believe that if we put God and his kingdom first, even -- no, especially -- in the awful circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves, then God will open a way, that we cannot see in advance. For I also know people who have not failed in love, even in the most difficult of times, and who have lived to bless God for their choice. We all of us at times are little Herods. Sometimes we all do better. But let us always remember how easy it is to slip into Herod’s position and to justify to ourselves the greatest acts of selfishness. Let us in this joyful season think on these sad things as well. Let us open our hearts indeed to the Christ Child, whose face is that of all men and women, and whose face is especially that of the weak and the helpless -- the sick, the elderly, the unborn, the poor, and the lonely and unloved. Let us strive to be Christians in deed and not to fail in love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.