December 29, 2013
Isaiah 63: 7-9
I’m taking a little liberty with the Lectionary this week. Technically, the Episcopal Lectionary features the prologue of John (1:1-18) for the Gospel reading (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”). It’s a very beautiful and mystical meditation on the incarnation of light and love into the world. I would have actually preferred to comment on that reading.
Instead, I am turning to the Methodist readings for this week, which include the second chapter of Matthew for the Gospel reading: The Slaughter of the Innocents. I would rather not comment on this passage. I would rather stay in the light, life and love of Christmas (as I suspect most people would). However, I cannot be true to the Year of Matthew without including this reading right after Christmas – which is where it falls Biblically. It is a heartbreaking irony that, immediately after the birth of the Christ child and
the adoration of the Magi, we have the narrative of King Herod’s slaughter of all male infants in his demented effort to root out any threat to his rule. The story of the birth of hope and joy to the world is immediately followed with the violent end of that hope and joy for many.
While the actual historicity of the Slaughter of the Innocents is questionable (the ancient historian Josephus mentions nothing of it), King Herod was certainly a bloodthirsty man. When Herod came to power in 37 BCE, he had all the members of the Great Sanhedrin (the supreme religious court of Israel) murdered, and he also murdered two of his sons during his rule, prompting Caesar Augustus to quip “”It is safer to be a pig in a parent’s household than to be a son in Herod’s court” (John Petty, Lectionary blogging: Matthew 2: 13-23). So if this story is not historically true, why does Matthew ruin a perfectly good Christmas narrative with it?
Many commentators argue that Matthew – writing for a predominantly Jewish audience – was making parallels between Jesus’ life and that of Moses in order to portray Him as the “new Moses”: “He survives assassination, as did Moses. He goes to Egypt, as his people once did, and comes out again, as his people also did. He is afflicted by Herod, as Moses was afflicted by Pharoah” (John Petter, Ibid.) While this is valid, I think there is more going on here than Matthew just making a theological point about the salvation narrative in Jesus. The story is too vivid and too horrifying. Even in a time such as Matthew’s, when child deaths were all too common, the act of a monarch engaging in mass extermination of the children of his own people would have been viewed as ghastly and insane.
I think that Matthew is making a point about how our world – under the lash of oppression – receives the prospect of the birth of hope and light for the poor: It will inevitably be greeted with violence by those threatened by it – those who are willing to kill anyone who stands in their way. Joy Carol Wallis points out, “[Herod] reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression” (“Putting Herod Back into Christmas“, Sojourners, 2/21/13).
It has been over a year since the massacre at Sandy Point Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot to death 20 children and six adult staff members, after killing his own mother in their home. In between that time and now, at least 194 more children have been killed by firearms in the US – 103 of the deaths were homicides, and 50 of those were at the hands of parents (Mark Follman, “At Least 194 Children Have Been Shot to Death Since Newtown,” Mother Jones, 12/10/13). A recent analysis by two Boston-area surgeons of pediatric deaths from gunshot wounds places that estimate much higher: “About 500 American children and teenagers die in hospitals every year after sustaining gunshot wounds — a rate that climbed by nearly 60 percent in a decade” (Bill Briggs, “Terrible Tally: 500 children dead from gunshots every year … “, NBC News). In some regions gun sales perversely spiked immediately after the Newtown shootings, in response to media coverage of renewed activism for common-sense gun controls.
In our case, Herod is not a single person so much as a unified voice in our heads telling us that we must defend ourselves at all costs, regardless of how many innocents are killed in the process. In the US, the gun death rate for children is four times that of Canada, which has the next-highest rate. In spite of rhetoric claiming that guns will protect children, for every one time a gun in the home is used in self-defense, a gun is used for suicide 11 times, 7 times for criminal assault and homicide and 4 times accidentally injuring or killing someone (Children’s Defense Fund, “Protect Children Not Guns,” 2013).
I would rather not talk about this right after Christmas. But not talking about it does nothing to prevent it from happening again and again, with mind-numbing regularity. On New Year’s Eve, I will be joining several area churches as we hold a candlelight vigil for the victims of gun violence in Washington, DC, beginning at the Washington Monument at 11:00PM and ending at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It’s not likely to result in any massive legislative change or mark a sea-change in public opinion, but it’s a beginning, in community. It’s a light in the darkness. Any additional light is appreciated.