December 30, 2018, The Holy Innocents and the Sign of Light – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000114
Here in the Church, Christmas isn’t over yet. Even though there are already trees lying along the curbs, the twelve days of Christmas didn’t end on December 25th, it only began then, and it stretches all the way to January 6th, next Sunday, when we remember the coming of the Magi from the East, bringing gifts to the Child born to be King. So we are still celebrating. But, in between December 25th and January 6th, right in the middle of all the gifts and decorations, the cookies and carols, comes the day we call the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day on which King Herod flew into a rage when he found out he had been tricked by the Wise Men – and in his rage, and his paranoia at the birth of a new king, he ordered his soldiers to slaughter every little boy in and around the “Little Town of Bethlehem” who was two years old or under.
On Christmas Eve, at our festival of Lessons and Carols, we sang a carol called “Unto us a Son is born” that was a new one to me, that contained a verse about this most horrible event:
“Herod then with fear was filled:
‘A prince’, he said, ‘in Jewry!’
All the little boys he killed
at Bethlem in his fury.
Even as we sang those words, I remember thinking that they felt so completely and utterly out of place, in the midst of a holy season that we think of as a time of light and love and joy and peace. It seemed jarring, maybe a little wrong, to sing about something so ugly and cruel and unspeakably evil. And yet, there it was.
There are people who cast doubt on this event, claiming that Matthew just made it up. They like to point out that the main historian of the time, Josephus, doesn’t say anything about it. On the other hand, everything that is known about Herod shows that he was a paranoid, power-greedy ruler, who murdered a lot of people to keep a firm grip on his throne, including his own sons, one of his wives, and his mother-in-law. So the fact that the death of a few dozen baby boys didn’t get recorded shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In fact, it is exactly that lack of outrage, or even notice, in the annals of human history that makes this slaughter both so terrible and so important to remember. Because we live in a world where the deaths of little children, where acts of cruelty by men in power, where the grief of bereaved parents, where the death of loved ones, barely seems to make a ripple in the grand scheme of things. God chose to be born as a baby boy, into a world in which the lives of baby boys were held of little account by the powers that be. And that, Charlie Brown (as the saying goes) that is the true meaning of Christmas.
Listen to what John says to us today, at the very beginning of his gospel, “The light shines in the darkness….”
We sing “Joy to the world!” at Christmastime, exactly because we are the people who are walking in darkness. We are the people living in the shadow of death, along with every one of our 7 and a half billion brothers and sister who share this world with us. Jesus came to be born as one of us, to share the full experience of our humanity. God so loved this world that he had made, that he sent his one and only Son to us, to live and die as one of us. That is the first thing it means for the light to shine in the darkness – that the one who is light entered our darkness, and shared it with us. He chose to know pain. To know sickness. To know, from the depths of the darkness: sorrow, and betrayal, and fear, and anger, and death.
Because the coming of Christ doesn’t mean that the darkness has been erased. Not yet. Not long after Mary gave birth to Jesus, the mothers of Bethlehem were grieving over the lifeless bodies of their own little boys. And over the centuries since the first Christmas, the darkness has continued to overshadow this earth. Countless young men and women of every nationality have been killed on the battlefields of this world to satisfy the greed of a ruler or the hatred of a nation. Diseases like cancer bring death to young and old indiscriminately, while poverty and mental illness and injustice and violence darken the lives of way too many of the living. Jealousy and resentment and cruelty and fear infect our relationships.
We feel the darkness in a very immediate way right now, as it looks like our friend and brother Scott is losing his battle with the cancer that is spreading from one part of his body to another. It is really hard to feel anything other than bewildered, or angry, or terribly sad. And it isn’t wrong to feel any and all of those things. It’s entirely appropriate to hate the darkness. And sometimes it is really hard to see the light still shining in that deep darkness. But the promise is that the light has come, that it is here, that he is here, God with us. And his light is present in the prayers and thoughts and kindness of everyone who loves Scott and Linda. His light is present in the knowledge and skill of doctors and nurses and technicians who are caring for them. His light is present in the innocence and love of their beautiful little grandchildren.
Because the reality is that we, little children of God that we are, we are called to be the light, just like that little song we all sang when we were children. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Jesus himself told us, “You are the light of the world…. let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” If this world is going to see the light that came into the world on the first Christmas, it is primarily through us that they will see it.
We shine into the darkness each in our own way, in every way that we show love to one another, whether that is through a hug, or a phone call, or a prayer, or a home-cooked meal. When we oppose lies and injustice and cruelty, when we forgive, when we show grace, when we show respect to those whom the world despises and mercy to those who don’t deserve it, then we reflect the light of God into the darkness of this world.
Because light is God’s sign, from beginning to end. At the beginning of all beginnings, when the Word was present with God and the Spirit hovered over the unformed universe, the first word that was spoken was this: “Let there be light.”
When God led his chosen nation through the wilderness, he went before them in a bright cloud by day and a blazing fire by night/
When God sent his prophet to speak hope to the world, Isaiah cried out: “Arise, shine, for your light has come!” and “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And to those living in the darkness of the shadow of death, on them has light shone.”
And when Jesus came in the fullness of time, his birth was heralded by the rising of that new star that caught the attention of the Magi, and by the glorious light that dazzled the eyes of the sleepy shepherds keeping watch over their flocks near Bethlehem.
Jesus said of himself, “I AM the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
And in the new Jerusalem, John wrote in his vision, “There will be no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”
The light shines in the darkness, John wrote. And we are definitely all too familiar with the darkness. But that’s not the end of the story. John didn’t stop there – he went on to say: “…and the darkness has not overcome it.” Because the thing about God choosing light as his sign to us is this: light always gets the victory over darkness. The innate property of light is this: if you throw open the door of the darkest room on a bright summer day, the dark is instantly and utterly gone. Darkness, that has such immense and terrible power to blind and frighten us, is suddenly and entirely powerless in the face of light. No bright room was ever darkened by opening the door to a dark closet; the light always floods in to conquer the shadows.
And that is our glorious hope, the hope of God’s final judgment, when the door of this dark world is thrown wide open at last the sweet, unstoppable light of God will come flooding in. And every work of the darkness will be extinguished. War will be gone forever, cancer will be gone forever, hatred will be gone, fear will be gone, mental illness will be gone, racism will be gone, Alzheimer’s disease will be gone, addiction will be gone, jealousy will be gone, fear and suspicion and cruelty will be gone forever and ever. Because light wins. Light always wins.
But now, we live in the in-between time. In the birth of Jesus Christ we have seen the light that has broken in to our darkness. We have rejoiced, we continue to rejoice, in the coming of God to his people. We live our lives daily in the light and strength of his love. But as the Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us – as if we needed a reminder – we also live in a world that is still overshadowed, a world that is still so full of pain and sadness and sickness and loss, of our own suffering and of the suffering of the people around us. And so, today, let us pray that God will shine out through us more and more, as we pray the collect once more, altogether:
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.