Monday, December 28, 2015

Remembering the Slaughtered Innocents

Today we remember the slaughter of the innocent boys of Bethlehem, killed by Herod as he tries to get rid of any possible competition, even if that competition is newly born and not likely to challenge him for decades.  Below is the essay that I wrote that Living Lutheran published a year ago.

I remember the first time in my churchgoing life that Dec. 28, the day we commemorate the Holy Innocents, fell on a Sunday. The brave pastor actually preached on the slaughter of the Bethlehem boys by Herod’s orders. The pastor apologized for his lack of Christmas cheer.

I was old enough to be fascinated by this juxtaposition between Christmas and martyrdom. Soon after, I discovered that the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, falls on the day after Christmas.

What does it mean that the early church included these days commemorating martyrdom so close to Christmas? Why must we be plunged into messages of gloom so soon after the message of hope contained in the Christmas story?

Perhaps the early church was more aware of the darkness that’s always lurking at the edges of the cheer. But I suspect that every culture has done its best to repress the knowledge that martyrdom and other types of doom could be around the next corner.

I have Facebook friends who angrily talk about how much they loathe religion with its manmade deities manufactured to bring us false comfort – and I wonder what kind of religious tradition they’re invoking. Many a Christian feast day reminds us that we may pay an ultimate price for our beliefs.

But then again, this is the time of year when it’s tempting to spend extra time with the baby in the manger. He’s so cute, after all. We like the picture of that cozy stable, the animals who sing the baby to sleep, Mary and Joseph who find shelter.

This Christmas-card picture ignores the other facts: the lack of adequate shelter, the stink of the animals, the woman forced to give birth in unsanitary conditions, the brutal government that will soon force the family into refugee status.

We may want to forget, but Jesus never forgot. And if we’re honest, we can spend some time thinking about how many people still face these kinds of adverse conditions today. We are not so very far away from ancient Rome. In many ways, our societies have scarcely evolved at all.

Let us take some time away from our holiday festivities to remember those who have died for their faith. Let us offer prayers for those who are still persecuted. Let us take some time to remember the refugees who must flee abuse of all sorts. Let us light a candle as we remember God’s promise that the kingdom breaks through in the presence of the baby in the manger. Let us celebrate God’s vision of a kingdom where families will not have to flee the terror of tyrants, where the faithful will not be stoned for their beliefs.

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