Summary: The death of the innocent children in Bethlehem tells us much about evil in the world, and what we can offer the non-believers.
The Holy Innocents (The Eve of)
Does Evil come from God, or from Us?
Preached at Saint John the Evangelist, Cold Lake
Octave of Epiphany, Evening Prayer, 10 January 2002
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, whose children suffered at the hands of Herod, receive, we pray, all innocent victims into the arms of mercy. By your great might frustrate all evil designs and establish your reign of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in thy sight, O Jehovah, my rock, and my redeemer. Amen.
As I started to put thoughts together for this commemoration and celebration of The Holy Innocents I tried to find an upbeat aspect of the readings. There has been a lot of discussion about evil and horror these past few months, and I wanted to put a positive light in this homily. Well, after much reflection, I accepted that there are few ways you can paint the slaughter of young children in a positive light. But what we hear in the readings tonight, horrific and depressing, does have some important messages for us as a community of believers.
The story of the nativity leads us to the mystery revealed through the eyes of the Magi on the Feast of Epiphany. We come through this wonderful season and are drawn up short tonight, on this Holy Day – The Feast of Holy Innocents. The birth of our Saviour and His flight into Egypt are underscored in blood by Herod’s slaughter of all boys under the age of two.
Up until this point, the Christmas history reads much like a child’s bedtime story. Our eyes are filled with love and wonder at the message of the angels proclaimed before the shepherds. In the gospel reading Saint Matthew takes us from the journey of hope with the Magi, a journey that ends with us kneeling in the manger, offering ourselves our souls and bodies – all we are – before the Christ child, to Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to escape the hate, fear and unrestrained evil of Herod. And as the Holy family escapes, as they run away from this horrible act to save our Lord, those baby boys left behind are killed by Herod’s troops.
This event carries with it some interesting lessons for us. We are a hopeful people, we Christians. In our worship and our lives we often kneel before Christ to offer our praise and gifts to the glory of God. We are consecrated as a people in service of the Lord; this is the reason we are here. There is no greater mission for a believer than to do his Father’s will. The problem is that we can become separated from that holiness, can feel that warm enveloping embrace departing from us – much as we sometimes leave our families and travel far away for extended periods. The way we become separated from God is through sin, or (as my Grandfather would say) our ‘pigheaded stubbornness’ and unwillingness to do what is right. That closeness is lost through our unrepentant sin. As Christ fled before the evil of Herod, we can all too easily separate ourselves from God.
In that Holy city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, there would soon be an act of unspeakable evil. Herod’s soldiers, following his orders, would methodically proceed house-to-house, seeking all of the young boys and murdering them. We pale upon hearing the story, and wonder at the why and how of the event. The question that springs into my mind, is how could such evil come into such a Holy place? How could God, born of woman, flee the city and permit this act to proceed? The easy answer, although not so easy to understand, is that God had very little to do with it. Herod did not act as an agent of God, and we know that there is no ‘Saint Herod’ in the register of saints. Herod was a man, sinful and given through the gift of free will to do evil, horrible, unspeakable evil. There is part of the lesson in this reading – we are all part of the same race as Herod, and have in all of us in some way that same streak that urges us to do wrong.
We also see in this drama another play on the salvation story. Christ comes into the world in joy and wonder, announced by the angels to the shepherds and worshiped by the Magi. A short time later, Christ leaves – this time to Egypt until Herod dies - and later to leave again on the cross on Golgotha. Can you see the parallel here? Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt as a result of the evil enacted by Herod. Their presence is lost as a result of this evil. Soon after the Holy family returns to Judah, and Christ begins His world-altering ministry. As Jesus was taken from us to Egypt as a result of evil, so he will be sacrificed on a cross and taken from us again a second time as a result of evil, and return to us in the resurrection. In both the escape into Egypt and the crucifixion Christ is lost to us as a result of evil – an evil physically acted out by we humans.