A Holy Kind of Innocence

We have, of course, just celebrated Christmas, and the lectionary asks us to face again the darkness Jesus pierced with his incredible light; that light the first chapter of John describes as the Word taking flesh. We are to lament with Rachel as she weeps for her children as we reflect on Herod's slaughter of the Innocents. The lectionary asks us to live not only times of joy but times of sorrow too because surely this is more reflective of the brokenness and hopefulness of the lives we all live.

Christmas was organised so that the rowdy pagan solstice could be tempered by Christian reflectiveness, could perhaps even attract pagan worshippers to something more representative of life as they really knew it.

The church's choice for Christ's December Mass was also pragmatic, how better to embody the mystery of the incarnation than by declaring the birth of the Light of the World, the Son of God, at the darkest time of the year. The Light shines in the darkness and is made more bright against the foil of our darkest days in terms of the amount of sunlight. It also reminds us that there is a tendency in us all to want to hide in the darkness and bury those things of our lives that God would want to bring to light, our prejudices, our narrowness, our shame and our sin. Some of our losses are self-generated, some of our losses are the consequence of the brokenness of others. Much of the world's falling short is explained by Calvin's depravity of humanity, the inability we have to really operate in a way that is not self-serving, the need we have for the power of the Holy Spirit to take up residence in us and lend us that capacity to choose to live for Christ and be transformed so that Christ's mind might develop in us and we might better build God's Kingdom here on earth.

The same emotions that live in us live in all people and it is only that some are able to keep them in check supernaturally, to win the war that wages as St Paul describes it in Romans 7 when the things that we want to do are somehow held back and frustrated by tendencies that can sometimes take on a life of their own and turn any regular human being into something monstrous.

During Jesus' time, as in our own, insecure people resort to drastic means to preserve their power. For Herod, a potential rival was on the scene, another King was causing those first stirs among the people and Herod couldn't live with the idea that a small child might usurp him and all he had secured. Herod committed one of those heinous crimes of our history, which we see repeated today even in events such as those that befell Peshawar and 140 children less than two weeks ago. Parents are deprived of their small children, who are taken from them in a moment of sheer madness. Tyrannical forces far away come suddenly near. Rachel certainly continues to weep. Jeremiah imagines Rachel weeping in her grave as God's people are overcome by the Babylonians as they were 600 years before Christ. Matthew takes up the prophet's image and applies it to the new situation and those mothers who mourn Herod's destruction of their children. It is an image that applies again to situations we read about, hear about and watch on our news channels today. 

What response can we make as Christians?

This question I am asked often: why God allows such suffering in our world, how can I account for this suffering: asked questions like this I most obviously feel my own limitations as a minister and I want to say that I am working these things out too as I progress through life. There are perhaps some responses we can make:

The first I seem to see in my imagination when I think on the moment we will see our maker face to face – many will ask God “Why did you allow all that suffering?” and I always wonder if the response will be “I was just about to ask you the same question” - God will require of us some account – he gave us free will and made us in his image and he must weep to see what it is we do to one another. 

The other explanation I give is an expansion on that – that indeed in the face of God made known in Jesus Christ we come to know a compassionate God – we come to know a God who weeps and who understands our losses and the suffering that is ongoing in his World. Jesus wept and so too must God if they are of the same essence and some theologians will say that can not be and expand on a what is called Patripassianism and that is not possible for a sovereign God to be changed in this way but if we behold instead that sense of God as three then we can know that indeed the Godhead does weep, that the Spirit can be grieved and that the I am (Yahweh), creator of all things, whom we encounter in the Old Testament is indeed a God who changes his mind as he did when confronted with the pleas of both Moses and Lot, who becomes jealous, when his people turn away from him to place their worship elsewhere and who mourns the destruction of his people. 

And then perhaps to those who know suffering on the scale of Rachel's in this life, then we have to explain that God too knows the loss of a child. It was a dark day, the day Jesus hung on a cross and at the final moment of his death, that curtain of the temple tore from top to bottom. God too lost a child. When Jesus ascended to heaven the mourning finished and the embrace for a returned Son ricocheted through the Heavens and out of this sense of the gift that they are to one another, they sent the greatest gift they had to give, to us: the person of the Holy Spirit - to minister to us in this life  - in all its joys and sadnesses, in all its impossible to answer questions.

There will always be Rachels who weep but there will also always be Rachels who know that in God we have hope, the certainty of life eternal and the potential reconciliation of all people, even those most estranged. 

The power of God's truth is that he lives in the same world that we live in, he is not a remote divinity, one who cares little about the human situation. There is power in the narrative of the Innocents because we understand better that freeing us from oppression is the sort of work Christ became one with us to do.

The Holy One lives in a world indeed where Worldly powers react to Christ's Spiritual light and some will run or wreak havoc. In Christ there is hope for us all, in our Herod tendencies and out Rachel laments that reconciliation is something we can come to know both within ourselves and with Christ. 

Christmas is made more powerful if we understand that tendency in us to want to stay with the baby of the manger and not the child who grows and is threatened; that there is a desire in us to hide in the places where the angels sing and join them in our carols rather than Rachel in her tears but that actually it's Christmas too when we discuss the topic of our suffering and we return to church to hear about the Holy Innocents.

Christmas means more when it speaks to real life and minsters to the insecurities of our Herods and the lament of our Rachels, Christ comes to live in the world in which we live and he calls us after him into that world: the world beyond our church doors where what we proclaim in here can truly take on flesh. 

How will what you proclaim at church take on flesh in 2015?

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