Friday, December 28, 2012

Triumph of the Innocents

Scripture for Christmas Eve and Day include Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

On Saturday afternoon, our children staged their annual Christmas pageant. Some of you were here to enjoy that yearly adventure when kids slip on the sandals of shepherds, put on the robes of kings, and get fitted out with angel wings. It’s such a visceral way to claim the story as their own, because it is our story, not just about first-century characters caught in the headlights of a mighty surprising midnight tale, but the story of our redemption, our salvation, our humble and puzzling place in the new creation God brings to birth in Jesus Christ.

We dedicated this year’s pageant to the twenty children cut down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We did that to affirm that their story is also our story. The inexpressible losses suffered by their families have diminished us, too, and require us to keep expressing these losses until we have figured it out as a nation what is to be done to prevent this happening again.

You know it is only St. Luke and St. Matthew who get Jesus onto the stage of human history by telling stories of his birth. St. Mark has him emerge full-grown as an itinerant preacher. St. John introduces him with the song of a philosopher, that great Prologue about the Word becoming flesh.

And Matthew goes to a place in his story that Luke doesn’t seem to know about. This is a dark place of great anguish, the holy family’s night-time escape to Egypt, and King Herod’s vicious slaughter of the innocents, his maniacal ethnic cleansing, massacring all the children in and around Bethlehem two years old and younger, attempting to make sure that he eliminates the prophesied king of the Jews, the one whom eastern sages have come to anoint.

These episodes do not make it into any Christmas pageant that I know of. It’s not because there’d be any shortage among the boys to play the parts of Herod’s soldiers. It’s that even grown women would recoil from having to take the parts of all those mothers. Matthew respects their privacy, refusing to narrate the carnage and instead obliquely cites scripture: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

We don’t know what to do with this part of the Christmas story. But it is no less our story. Especially this Christmas.

Without this bleak and haunting part of the Christmas story, we miss how broad, how deep, how relentless the love of God in Jesus Christ really is. The insane violence of Herod, the suffering of those children, the bottomless anguish of their parents, all depict accurately the world into which Jesus was born, as they depict our world into which God’s Word must be made flesh even now.

The full Christmas story tells us that Jesus is not immune to injustice, violence, and sorrow. It is into these conditions that he is born; it is within these experiences that we shall continue to find him. As a child, he escapes Herod’s plot, at the price of the holy family’s becoming refugees for a time in Egypt; but there will be another Herod, another plot in the time of Jesus’s young adulthood, that will place our Lord’s life on the line and this time he will know exactly what he must do to redeem the human race from its ancient bondage to sin and death. He must take on himself the brunt and burden of the evil that faces him, and by doing that show how the way of the cross is the way of life. Precisely this is what his friends continue to do, as teachers did in the hallways and classrooms of that school on December 14th, his Spirit empowering their spirit, his courage undergirding theirs, his embrace drawing them through the eye of the needle, the time of trial that we pray to avoid by God’s grace but more maturely pray to meet by God’s grace when we must.

There is a painting by William Holman Hunt, one of the British Pre-Raphaelite painters of the last quarter of the 19th century. He titled it, “The Triumph of the Innocents.” It’s not as well-known as his earlier painting “The Light of the World,” which you have seen (Jesus stands at a shut door, a door unused and covered with vines, a door that appears to have no outer handle; it is dusk, and Jesus stands knocking with one hand and in the other holds a lit lantern… a direct encounter with Jesus awaits, if the believer will open that door).

A reproduction of “The Triumph of the Innocents” is in the display cabinet at the back of the church for you to see. Hunt shows the holy family crossing the wilderness of Judea by night, Joseph leading the donkey on which Mary is seated, holding Jesus who is straining to reach out to clusters of young angels. There are no wings on these toddlers; but each head has an encircling ring of light—in fact, each of these fourteen children is bathed in light, and while they all look to be about two years old, there is nothing toddling about their gait. They walk with confident stride, and with arms linked (and it’s that vibrant fellowship that Jesus seems to be reaching for). And there are beautiful mysterious bubbles on the road, each holding what might be a little parallel universe… it is as if to say that while Herod has put these children to death, they now push the boundaries of reality. It is as if they are much more real than Herod is; as if they, released from his iron grip, are now free to lead and safeguard and bless the holy family in their migration.

This painting speaks to me, this Christmas when the slaughter of the holy innocents must be part of the real Christmas story. The twenty children of Newtown are leading us as a nation to figure out what we must do to make daily life safer for the innocent. What is happening through them is like brilliant light piercing the dark of our national failures and fears, and we must walk in that light. The Word of grace and truth is being made real in our experience of their deaths, and we must find what is required of us—and do it, that the Word be made flesh among us now.