You would never know it these days, but the Christmas holiday has a fairly checkered past. It’s not clear that it was celebrated at all during the first three centuries following Jesus’ death; and even once it was, it was generally overshadowed by the festival of Epiphany which falls each January 6th. In England and in America the celebration of Christmas was banned by the Puritans for being “too Catholic,” and it wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that respectable people in Boston began to celebrate Christmas openly again. So, we are reminded that our stories are always evolving. Anything we think of as solid and unchanging has probably undergone more transformations that we know.
These days the church seems to have two major religious festivals – Christmas and Easter. In another era, the church’s major religious festivals would have been Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Christians with a strong Trinitarian bent to their theology, Christians like me, might like to make something of the number three in relation to these festivals – though in all historical accuracy, I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that the church developed these three festivals to correspond to the persons of the trinity.
Still, working backwards, it seems evident that Pentecost is the festival of the Holy Spirit. It is on Pentecost that we remember how following Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension the early church was anointed by the Holy Spirit and sent out into the world to continue Jesus’ teaching and feeding and healing ministry.
Likewise, we know that Easter is the festival celebrating Christ’s triumph over the grave. It is on Easter that the church declares year after year that the death-dealing powers of this world will not have the last word, but that Jesus Christ – the living Word of God – has the ultimate say, and that in Christ, God has chosen all people to be saved.
So, it would seem that the cycle of holidays that begins with Advent and ends with Epiphany, and these days centers on Christmas, belongs to God the creator – which seems odd, since it has the word “Christ” in it. But this is the festival of the incarnation, and it is during this season that we wait for the whole creation to be redeemed. Though the first person of the Trinity is most often referred to as God the Father, it is during this season more than any other that we hear about Mary and her participation in God’s path to entering the world through Jesus, whose is called Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Christmas, as the festival of the incarnation, God becoming flesh, is celebrated on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with the bright brassy notes of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing;” or the soft tones of “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night.” But, those notes disappear into the heavens almost as soon as they leave our lips, and the next day we are already being pulled back into the rhythms of ordinary life. The church’s calendar gives us very little time to rest in the soft light of the Bethlehem stable, before we are reminded of the great suffering for which Christ came to die.
Once every three years, the first Sunday after Christmas focuses on the passage from Matthew’s gospel we heard this morning, in which King Herod responds to news from the wise men of a newborn king by having all the children in and around Bethlehem killed. This day is commemorated on the church’s calendar in many places as the “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” Some Christians call these infants the first martyrs for Christ, though typically in order to be a martyr you have to be killed for making a witness to Christ.
The question then, I suppose, is what kind of witness did these children’s lives make to Christ, for which they were killed? These young people, who never met the infant Jesus during his short stay in Bethlehem; who were never taught, or fed, or healed by Jesus of Nazareth; what witness to the power of God in Christ did they make, for which they died?
It’s fair to say that these children, unlike St. Stephen, the deacon and martyr who (as you can see on the cover of your bulletins) is also commemorated today, had no choice in the matter. They did not die for their beliefs. They did not offer their lives following the example of Jesus. These children, born in a small Jewish community under Roman occupation, powerless children of powerless parents, can only be understood to have testified by their total lack of power. The witness they offered was that the powers of this world are too often cruel and capricious, and so God has chosen to take on flesh, to be God with us, by choosing to enter the world as another powerless child born to powerless parents.
That doesn’t seem like much in the way of divine intervention. It’s really not news to any of us that the world is unfair, or that people with power and money live by different sets of rules than those without either. If God’s response to the cruelty of the world is to join us in our helplessness, what help is that at all? Wouldn’t we prefer a God who reigns with the sorts of power and control we are accustomed to from presidents and prime ministers, issuing executive orders and getting the world back on track in short order? What good does it do us to have God with us as a poor baby who wastes the only good luck he had, escaping death at the hands of one Herod as a child, just to grow up and be executed by another Herod, along with Pilate and those other rulers?
How we answer that question usually reveals something of how much power we have in our own lives. If you live each day with a sense of relative control, with the feeling that you are fairly capable of providing for yourself, and that your destiny is in your own hands, than this kind of life and this kind of death probably sounds like foolishness to you in the same way that it did to the Greco-Roman culture that surrounded the early church.
However, if you live each day with some sense of fear about where money to pay the rent will come from, or you rely on others for your ability to buy food, or you lack the documents that allow you to live in your community without fear of deportation, or you suffer from illnesses – physical or mental or emotional – that leave you at the mercy of your own uncontrollable body… if you live a life that you are not in control of, and you know this, then consider what it means that when God chose to take on flesh and become like us, God chose a life like yours.
God is not like the anonymous creditors who send you bills you can never pay. God is not like the grocery stores full of food only the middle class could afford to buy. God is not like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, keeping some people in and some people out of lands filled with plenty. God is not like the images of eternally healthy and perfect bodies that come to us in magazines and television commercials.
The witness offered by the holy innocents, who died for no fault of their own, is that God chooses a life l
ike theirs: poor, hungry, refugee, immigrant, weak. This may not be the God you want, but it is the God we need, because until the powers of this world are able to recognize the presence of the divine in the weakest and most vulnerable of people, then the kingdoms of this world are nothing at all like the kingdom of heaven, where no life is expendable and power is wielded on behalf of others, not over them.
After four weeks of waiting, the twelve days of Christmas are finally here and we will celebrate them until the festival of Epiphany. Perhaps this first Sunday of Christmas, with its commemoration of the holy innocents, is a mini-epiphany of its own. The incarnation means God with us as the weakest among us. How shall we care for God’s creation?