This morning’s story is disturbing. In fact many commentators noted that they would prefer at least one more week of the idealic scene at the manger before launching into a tale of infanticide. Away in a manger where the baby lies silent and peaceful and still. And yet, it’s a good reminder that God was born into the real world – not some sanitized version of it. Which is how it has to be doesn’t it, otherwise how could we continue to find meaning in the birth 2,000 years later?
This is not a fairy tale that we recall once a year. It’s not a once upon a time, happily ever after kind of thing. Instead it’s a story that starts and ends in a world full of violence. A world where the powerful will do anything to protect their power. A world where fear results in so many being complicit in the violence. A world that was and still is today.
The story of Herod while disturbing is not a surprise. In fact, our world is full of similar stories. Collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay to maintain power, to maintain order, to maintain freedom. And the fact that not even Jesus, God with us, can usher in universal peace should be a grave reminder to us that we don’t follow God to win some kind of epic battle. We follow God to experience freedom of the spirit. We follow God because we believe that there is a better way to live and to be in the world than just stepping on each other for our own gain.
The nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church in California added something new this year. Cages. Jesus, Mary and Joseph all stand separated by their own cage. Needless to say, the new addition drew quite a bit of attention and controversy. But here’s the thing – my guess is when you think about Herod killing all of those babies as Jesus’ family flees, you are disturbed. How could he do such a thing? What a horrible monster!
And yet, when we draw attention to the same violence in our own world, in our own country – we are much more uncomfortable. While most of us are probably not supportive of detaining people in cages when they enter the United States, we may not be nearly as conflicted about deporting people. Why should we have to take care of them? They could be a threat to us. They are an unknown. They put a strain on our resources and threaten our way of life.
And here’s where it’s important to pause. We have allowed a cultural narrative to co-opt our understanding of the world. The cultural narrative defines us and them. It privileges some lives over others and thus makes it acceptable to disregard the humanity of refugees and asylum seekers.
In an article in Sojourners, Dr. Coleman Baker says this, Herod’s paranoia and brutality led him to make the decision to kill those children in and around Bethlehem, but he did not carry the act out himself. Matthew notes that Herod “sent and killed” those children. Those who were sent by Herod to carry out this horrific plan are not only silenced in the text, but they are not even present. These nameless, voiceless individuals, who are often depicted in works of art, are absent from the story.1
We must take care to be aware that it can be easy to do the work of paranoia and justify our actions. This morning’s story of the slaughter of innocent children under the age of 2 is horrifying. The holy family was lucky enough to be able to flee. If they had not successfully avoided the violence – we would not be here today. There would be no Christianity. The good news would have been silenced.
But it was not.
So here we are, today, 2000 years later. May the gift of peace the Christ child brings to us in the nativity scene continue to grow in us throughout the new year. And may we live lives informed by the good news not dictated by paranoia. Amen.