In this few days after Christmas the Church commemorates several rather sobering events: St Stephen’s Day, December 26, remembering the day Stephen the Martyr was stoned to death simply for being Christian; December 28 (today), recalling the Slaughter of the Innocents; and December 29, commemorating the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury St. Thomas Becket in the 12th Century. The Church calendar this week reminds us that Jesus was born into a world that seems inherently violent and dangerous, that violence against good and innocent people is commonplace in our world, and that every generation produces versions of the Taliban, the Gestapo, the KGB, the Inquisition and the Puritans.
The remembrance of the Holy Innocents involves the story of Herod, a token and puppet ruler under Roman imperial rule at the time of Christ. Having discovered that a child was about to be born, a child to which certain prophecies and hopes were being applied, he decided he should hedge his bets and thus killed all the children two and under in the entire region where Jesus was born. Matthew creates a deliberate parallel between Jesus’ birth and the situation Moses faced as a child, as well as other acts of violence against children (see Jeremiah 31:15 – many scholars place Rama near Bethlehem).
It seems to me that the abuse or killing of children is something only the very worst of human beings can do – people who I assume have lost the last shred of their own humanity, so that they cannot identify or empathize even with the most vulnerable and innocent of beings.
Who kills children? Who could do something that horrendous? The New Testament uses Herod as a bad example, and we might prefer to think of such behaviour as primitive and typical of an earlier barbaric age. But in the last couple of weeks, a school in Pakistan was taken over by a group of Islamist fanatics, who spent hours shooting and torturing young children and their teachers. And more school children were kidnapped recently from a school in Nigeria by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.
As we recall the Slaughter of the Innocents, it may occur to us that innocence in general is being destroyed in our time.
It boggles the mind, but it makes the story of Herod all the more believable – people can do and are doing exactly this sort of thing. Herod goes down in history merely as a kind of stock figure that Matthew uses to make a point about the way power corrupts people, and how futile it is ultimately to try to contend with the will of God. He has no significance otherwise.
This doesn’t sound very “Christmassy,” does it? But what is Christmas?
Christmas, in the Christian sense, is not merely a yearly return to a simpler time, or into a vague nostalgia, even though that is often the way it is portrayed. The celebration of the Incarnation is the realization that into the midst of our darkness and chaos, into our complicated and confusing life, a new way of being has been introduced, a new power to prevail over hopelessness, a new courage to stand up in the face of threat and oppression, and a new dignity has been given to human life which confers upon every human being at least the potential of being a child of God, and the awareness that God’s presence and image in to be found in the least of human lives.
We’re not there yet – we still live in a world that not only condones violence, it celebrates it, or looks the other way. Jesus was designated Prince of Peace, and yet he himself apparently acknowledged that his very presence would create conflict and division even within families, as people had to make the hard choice regarding loyalty to the way of Jesus, or loyalty to the way of Caesar (or Herod, if you prefer). As a result, Mary, presenting her new child in the Temple, was warned that her child would be the cause of future heart break.
The attack by Muslim extremists on a school, and on young children in general, reveals that the spirit of Herod is alive and well in many parts of the world. Malala Yousafzai, who was recently awarded the Nobel prize for peace, was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan simply for wanting the right to go to school. Many of the attacks on children today are not as overt but just as deadening, child slavery and prostitution being primary examples.
The Nobel Committee said “It is a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected. In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.”
Malala said: “The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambition,” Yousafzai said last year. “But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” She celebrated her 17th birthday by visiting Nigeria to campaign for the release of the more than 200 school girls abducted by the Boko Haram thugs. She met with the President and the families of the kidnapped children.
Today’s Gospel says: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.” Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ exposure to the spiritual and intellectual traditions of Israel, and of growing in wisdom early in his life is an important and compelling one, pointing to the needs of children to be treated with respect and given every opportunity.
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Luke shows that Jesus engaged in a process of learning, which also implies the importance of young people in general receiving the right kind of education, mentorship and encouragement. Mary and Joseph’s care for Jesus, assuring him proper guidance and teaching, is an important dimension of any child’s upbringing – a child’s right you might say. So the model of care provided to Jesus becomes in itself a model for Christian families and the world in general.
And it is the welfare of children that is of most concern at the moment. 25 years after the UN declaration on children’s rights, it is apparent that no major advance has been made in guaranteeing safety, equality, freedom, education and food, or in protecting children from poverty, forced labour, war, prostitution and other forms of exploitation.
According to UNICCEF, “recent global estimates based on data of UNICEF, the ILO and the World Bank indicate that 168 million children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in child labour. Some 150 million among them are below the age of 14. In addition, millions of children suffer in the other worst forms of child labour, including slavery and slavery-like practices such as forced and bonded labour and child soldiering, sexual exploitation, or are used by adults in illicit activities, including drug trafficking.” Worldwide, we see 5 year olds working long hours in dangerous sweat shops; kids the same age forced into lives of prostitution; parents the world over afraid to let their children play outside for fear of abduction; even in places like Vancouver, young immigrants looking for a better life are tricked into becoming virtual slaves of wealthy and unethical people – never getting enough educational opportunity or money to make a go of it and living under threat of deportation if they don’t cooperate. It is estimated there are 36 million slaves worldwide, which to my knowledge is worse than when the slave trade was legal 200 years ago. It is a $150 billion industry worldwide – 80% of that from prostitution, and obviously a substantial percentage of that number will be children.
Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple
What is being suggested at Christmas is that Jesus is the universal child, the child that God gives to the whole world, and then the challenge becomes one of how to receive, appreciate and properly nurture the child in our midst, in whatever form that child might take, whatever skin colour that child might have, whatever flag or religion the child might have inherited.
American writer Marion Wright Adelman: “The Prince of Peace is mocked as we let a child be injured or killed by guns every thirty minutes. The growing boy Jesus who pondered and studied His heavenly Father’s word would worry about the millions of children around America and the world growing up without an education – unable to read and compute – sentenced to social and economic death in a competitive and globalizing economy”
Christmas is not a time of universal happiness. There is great suffering at any time, and at Christmas time it may seem all the more painful and disturbing. As the song “Feed the World,” said a few years ago about the children in Africa: “Do they know it’s Christmas?” Many children in the world have no idea it’s Christmas, nor would the behaviour of the adults around them provide any clue.
Christmas is not merely a time for indulgence and escape. There is great importance in proclaiming the deeper message of the Christ Child, and not allowing it to be trivialized or get lost in all the commercialism – not allowing it to get turned into some generic winter holiday which has almost no meaning beyond getting good deals (which probably puts people more on a level with someone like Herod than with Jesus).
Marion Wright Adelman: “The poor baby in a manger is lost along with the poor babies crying out all over America for food, shelter, safety, and education in the jingle of cash registers, and the Christian belief that God entered history as a poor child is drowned out in the jungle of commerce and advertising.”
The Incarnation proclaims in the birth of this one child that human life is indeed sacred, because now we are meant to see that God dwells in and among us. And there are signs of hope.
Just this month, leaders of all the major religious groups of the world signed a declaration to end slavery by 2020. It was initiated by a 17 year old Australian exchange student (with the very appropriate name of Grace) who went on a school visit to Nepal. She said “I chose to work in a home for girls rescued from sex slavery, but when I went back, when I was 17, they had all gone.” They had all been trafficked by the people who were meant to be looking after them! With her father’s help, they have started the Walk Free campaign.
The recent ecumenical gathering, spearheaded by Pope Francis, is a major sign of hope, as I see it, and an indication of the way in which the Church and all religious groups can take an important lead in changing the consumerist mindset which reduces everything to dollar values and turns people into commodities.
Pope Francis said: “Every human being —man, woman, boy and girl— is an image of God. God is love and freedom that is given freely in interpersonal relationships; therefore, every human being is a free individual, whose life is for the good of others, living in equality and fraternity.”
The other leaders at the event were: Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Head of the Anglican Church, Buddhist: Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) (represented by Venerable Bhikkhuni Thich Nu Chan Khong); Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (represented by Dr. Abbas Abdalla Abbas Soliman, Undersecretary of State of Al Azhar Alsharif); Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi; Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Basheer Hussain al Najafi (represented by Sheikh Naziyah Razzaq Jaafar, Special advisor of the Grand Ayatollah); Sheikh Omar Abboud; Malaysian Buddhist Monk, Ven. Datuk Kirinde Dhammaratana Nayak Maha Thero, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (represented by His Eminence Metropolitan Emmanuel of France), Chief Rabbi David Rosen, KSG, CBE, and Rabbi Skorka, the coordinator of the Jewish community in South America.
The signing of the Faith Leaders’ Universal Declaration against Slavery is a historic initiative, working together to end a global tragedy by 2020, gathering combined represented congregations of followers and supporters of over half the world’s population.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby commented, “Christians believe that the divine life was lived fully and uniquely in the flesh and blood of a human being, Jesus Christ, born through the willing co-operation of his mother Mary. And so we are bound to see every human being as part of the divine plan. This means that no human body can, in any circumstance, be simply an object to be traded, trafficked or enslaved.” The archbishop set out a number of other ways ahead, including consumer pressure on companies they deal with for more information about their supply chains. Archbishop Welby said people can prevent the exploitation of others through their “own actions and choices as consumers and users of financial services.”
He said: “As we make this solemn commitment today, my prayer is that we shall by God’s grace play a key role in ending the inhuman practices of modern slavery – practices that disfigure our world and obscure the image of God in men, women and children. We have the will, we have the common purpose, this can be done; may God bless our action together.”
The modern day slaughter of the innocents, in whatever form it takes, is something that people who take the birth of Christ seriously, must be compelled to address.
I hope we can believe that if the Son of God can be born in such an obscure and humble way, and yet still cause kings and emperors to take notice, there is hope that the action of even one person can effect change. We can make a difference. This is incarnational theology and ethics – this is the kind of thing Christ came into the world to inspire.
I close with some helpful words from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men! (and women, we might add)
I hope and pray that you will choose to be agents of that peace and good will which is so necessary in our time.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
Galatians 4:4-7 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.