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The Revd Christopher Armstrong: Holy and Innocent

Sunday 28 December: The Holy Innocents
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Christopher Armstrong
1 Corinthians 1. 26-29; Matthew 2. 13-18

It is an inescapable fact that massacres of all kinds occur in human history, both ancient and modern. Today we begin with such a massacre in the highlands near Bethlehem, centuries before the birth of Christ. The prophet Jeremiah uses the poetic language of lamentation to describe it: {then} there was a voice heard, lamentation and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. Matt.2, 18

The Evangelist, Matthew  builds his account of what we call the Massacre of the Holy Innocents around this text in which the prophet par excellence for poetic lamentation, describes the wholesale slaughter of children by invading Assyrian hordes in the area a few miles to the north Bethlehem.  The names personify those who actually experienced the loss of their loved ones: Ramah is the place where it happened. Rachel stands for the ancestral tribe to which the families belonged an area near Bethlehem.

It was unusual for an invader to indulge in mass slaughter like that. Invaders usually rounded up old and young to be slaves in the places they came from; population was a valued commodity in those days: worth plundering.

So the children of that time were killed by the invaders. But Herod slaughters out of a sense of insecurity. Terror was his favourite instrument of rule. It is still a favourite tool of would-be oppressors, as we know only too well.

And what about the children ?  We only know of them en masse because our concern for the one who escaped, Jesus, blinds us to the separate identities of those whose names were eliminated from the historical record by their death.

Yet they were individuals, “of two years of age and below”. There is a tidy bureaucratic ring to that phrase, which still rings in my ears in its Latin form from my immersion in the old Latin liturgy: a bimatu et infra. A quotation from Herod’s very own decree . . . ?

But, of course, by that age, they had names: let us suggest – no gender equality in this situation; David, Saul, Peter, Jonathan, Tom, Ben, Abel, Dathan, Daniel, Levi, Reuben. If we knew the names we would know of the individuals and their special claim to life, to respect, to a future; above all their right not to be exterminated for the sake of a vainglorious, insecure tyrant who sought to be a famous name through his conquests and his architecture, but remains best known as a monster.

Herod’s massacre is not unique in being remembered because of the one child who was not massacred.

Similarly, once upon a time, when a certain Pharoah embarked upon a massacre of all the  Hebrew children in his kingdom, his strategy is remembered best for the one child who survived, and who was found, irony of ironies, by his very own daughter, and picked out of the bulrushes to become one so famous that, some hundreds of years later, his followers could think of no greater praise than to compare him with Jesus the Saviour.  “Behold a greater than Moses is here”.

Yes: Jesus, we believe, was, indeed, is, greater than Moses; not least for the merciful prayer which he made in his maturity from the agonizing cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”