Holy Innocents 28 December 2014
“To understand a man,” runs a Native American proverb, “you must walk for a day in his moccasins.” To make sense of today’s Gospel we need to stand alongside Matthew as he writes.
Though we are busy celebrating the birth of Jesus, Matthew writes in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. It is both evidence that we are living in the “latter days” and a witness to the sovereignty of God and his Messiah.
The early Church believed that in the Jewish scriptures God was foretelling what he would accomplish in the latter days. These are the latter days, and the idea that “this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” becomes Matthew’s trademark. John Fenton comments that, “Matthew’s work was to match event to prophecy…the fulfilment of the Old Testament is a first century method of bearing witness to Jesus as the one who is to be believed and obeyed.”
The sovereignty of God begins with the birth of Jesus, not with the resurrection. From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel there is confrontation between the sovereignty of God and his Messiah, and the kingdoms and rulers of the world. Today’s Gospel is an instance of this confrontation.
The magi have come and gone. Tricked, an enraged Herod wreaks his revenge upon the children of Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents, whom we remember today. Matthew uses Jeremiah’s words about the departed exiles as evidence of prophecy’s fulfilment.
Between the visit of the magi and its repercussions, God is at work. He warns Joseph in a dream of the danger to the child’s life – an obedient Joseph flees to Egypt with the child and his mother, remaining there until Herod’s death. Hosea’s words (11:1) about God calling his son, Israel, out of Egypt are used by Matthew as a prophecy about Jesus.
With the story of the magi, today’s Gospel is part of the introduction to Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps the themes of Jewish opposition and Gentile worship, and the ongoing conflict between the ways of the messianic kingdom and the way of the world, reflect the concerns of Matthew’s church. But the main emphasis is on God at work, warning Joseph to flee to Egypt and protecting the family in their stay there.
Perhaps the story of the Holy Innocents should not be taken at face value. We should also see it as a story that says something fundamental about the relationship between God and Jesus. From before his birth, God is watching over Jesus, protecting him so that he may fulfil his messianic ministry. An awareness of his call to ministry may only be clear to Jesus at his baptism, but Matthew shows us that it has been in the mind and purposes of God from the beginning.
As the French would say: Plus ça change, The more thingschange, the more they stay the same.. The story of the Holy Innocents is horribly topical and the heirs of Herod – “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – abound.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of a suffering world, by the needs of all God’s children, and the daily barrage of appeals for our money does not help. But they suggest that we can make a difference, however humble our circumstances. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” and the way we live our lives under God therefore matters. With a new year just around the corner, might the Holy Innocents encourage us to sharpen up our resolutions?
Individually, we can: recognise that the measure of a Christian society is the way in which children, the vulnerable and the marginalised are cared for, rather than the way in which the rich get richer, and vote accordingly; understand that we cannot solve everyone’s problems, but can do more by concentrating our giving to a smaller number of charities; take fair trade seriously, consuming and wasting less; boycott firms supplied by exploitative sweatshops, at home or abroad.
As congregations we need to ask: “Are we truly open to and supportive of children, the vulnerable and the needy, or are we just a cosy club created in our own image?” – and act on what we learn. Is God's sovereignty really at work in us?
Today's feast, The Holy Innocents, “draws our attention to the plight of children in a world where the implications of the birth of the Christ-child are not yet manifest”. WE know the truth and we must seek to proclaim ever more strongly the truth, we must not allow ourselves to be battered down by secularists or others but rather we should stand proudly, speaking up for the poor the marginalised and those without voices - but that speaking must not simply be with words but with actions also. One of the hopes for 2015 as a church. along with other churches in our deanery is to set up a way of supporting the needs that exist in Uckfield. Can you make a New Year resolution to, in whatever you can, financially or practically to get involved as the opportunities present themselves - or will you allow those in need to go the way of the Holy Innocents?