Sermon for Evensong on the Innocents’ Day, 28th December 2014
Isaiah 49:14-25, Psalm 128, Mark 10:13-16

On Thursday, Christmas Day, we celebrated the baby Jesus, the happy event, the most important baby ever. Tonight we are continuing to think about children, children in the Kingdom of God. This morning we have marked a complete reverse: the terrible story of the Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod the Great (Matt.2:13-18). Tonight our spirits can rise again as we remember how Jesus welcomed the little children. He said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.’

When I was in Toronto a couple of years ago to visit my daughter Emma while she was completing her undergraduate medical studies at the Hospital for Sick Children there, we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, and saw among other things, Rubens’ picture called ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’.

I can’t say you should rush off and look it up on Google. Although it’s a ‘great painting’, in the sense that the figures in it are beautifully drawn and coloured – the light is wonderfully captured, and the brutal Roman soldiers are terrifyingly strong and violent – it really isn’t something that I want to look at much, because all that vigour and strength is being used to tear little children from their mothers, then batter and stab them to death.

The same goes for Giotto’s painting of the same topic which you’ll find in the lower basilica at Assisi. Those are the two great masters’ versions which I have seen – there are also pictures of the Massacre of the Innocents by Lucas Cranach, Cornelis Van Haarlem, Guido Reni, Bruegel, and Nicolas Poussin. They’re all beautiful, until you realise what’s going on in them.

Herod the Great, who perpetrated the awful crime, was a client ruler, a king appointed by the Roman Senate to rule over the Jews. He was called ‘King of the Jews’, although he wasn’t an ethnic Jew – he was from Idumea, the land of Edom in the Old Testament. His mother was an Arabian princess. He had her, his mother, together with his first wife, and his three sons, all killed. The emperor Augustus was reported by the Jewish historian Josephus as having said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.

Some eminent scholars, for example Geza Vermes and E.P. Sanders, consider that it’s possible that the massacre of the innocents may not really have happened. It’s not mentioned in any other gospel apart from St Matthew. Josephus the historian doesn’t mention it in his history, his ‘Antiquities of the Jews’, written about 94AD. That could be because the number of 2 year-old boys in Bethlehem wasn’t very great – perhaps twenty or so only – and therefore, although dreadful, it wasn’t a big enough massacre to be considered worthy of mention; although later Christian tradition in the Byzantine, Syrian and Coptic churches puts the number of innocents at much higher numbers, in thousands.

Scholars have pointed out that perhaps the story is based on Herod’s appalling murder of his family, and on the gospel writer Matthew wanting to show how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament – Joseph and Mary’s flight into Egypt with the baby Jesus, to avoid Herod’s persecution, reflects the story of the birth of Moses in the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh’s killing of the firstborn of the Jews, and the prophecies, of Hosea (referring to the exodus from Egypt) and of Jeremiah, referring to the Jews’ exile in Babylon.

Whether the Massacre of the Innocents really did take place or not, it is a type of story which, unfortunately, is not unique in history. The idea of decimation (which literally means choosing one in ten), randomly selecting innocent people to be killed ‘pour encourager les autres’, (to encourage the others), is something which despotic rulers have done all down the ages. Usually it is because they are afraid, they are insecure.

Certainly Herod was insecure. The Sanhedrin, the Council of the Jews, had suggested that he wasn’t a proper Jew, and therefore not entitled to be king. So Herod had some of them killed as well. Now the wise men had told him that they were looking for a child, a child who had been born ‘king of the Jews’: Herod’s normal response would have been, on past form, to seek to eliminate the challenge by killing the challenger, who could have been any one of those Bethlehem two-year-olds.

There was, of course, no real logic in this. At Christmas we saw that this ‘king of the Jews’, Jesus, was a baby, just a teeny little baby, and the whole point about that was, is, that this king-baby was not mighty, not powerful in a conventional way. In Jesus’ world, the last shall be first, and the first last. Children are welcome.

Why then should Herod have been so afraid of this baby? I think you could ask the same question in parallel, about all those cases where Christians, not just Christ Himself, have been – and are – targeted by persecuting authorities.

Indeed I think you can understand the evil logic of many persecutions of Christians even today, in terms of power, or a perceived challenge to power. The government objection to Roman Catholicism in the time of Henry VIII was not particularly theological: it was all about the idea that Catholics owed their allegiance to the Pope rather than to Henry VIII. In the time of the early church, the Roman Emperor Diocletian demanded that all his subjects should acknowledge him to be a god, and worship him accordingly. The Christians very bravely refused, and were fed to the lions.

Now in many places in the Middle East – indeed most sadly, in some of the earliest Christian communities, such as Mosul in Iraq – Christians are being persecuted again for their belief. Canon Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, has been ordered out of the city, because there is such a powerful threat to his life, and it is probably not a good use of church funds to pay for a private army to protect him.

But what is it, what is it about these helpless, innocent, babies, that makes them such a threat in the world? In the mind of a man like Herod, there was a fear that one of the innocents would grow up to challenge him as king. But what about the poor Christians in the Middle East today, who might as well be innocent children for all the power they have?

The thing about the baby, the baby Jesus, is that we believe that He is God, God in human form. That is what is so threatening to people outside, people who don’t believe in him. They fear that He may show them up, expose their power and authority as based on nothing. They know that Jesus is said to be the Real Thing, and they have a little private nightmare – what if it’s true? Best to eliminate the possible source of embarrassment, they think.

‘Can it be true?’ is the title of a new carol, written by Susan Hill [], with music by Jacqueline Burley, which has just won a competition to find the best new carol, organised by BBC Radio 3 []. It’s good – I hope that Robert and the choir get it up for us here as an anthem, at least in time for next Christmas. But what seditious words they are. What if? Can it be true?

What if the other half, the other dimension, to the Christmas story, the God bit – not just the baby bit – what if it were true? Then indeed none of these oppressors, with their gunpoint demands, would have a leg to stand on. Their God may be – quote/unquote – the ‘one true God’ – but they are wrong in saying that Jesus was just a prophet, and nothing more. Of course they want to resist such a thing.

But it may be difficult to understand what the ‘God bit’ is. We know what a human being, what a baby, is. But the idea of God is so big that we find it difficult to understand.

I believe that whatever and wherever God is – and I don’t think He’s a nice old bloke with a white beard sitting on a throne above the clouds – there is a real sense that He is in all of us.

So if we pray to God to ask for wrong to be righted, for peace to break out, for healing to come: actually we have the means, we have the power, the skills, to do all those things already. We are praying for God to come in the Holy Spirit to inspire us, to call out those gifts which we already have.

That, I think, is why the Innocents are still relevant to us today, and why Jesus welcomed the children. Innocent children: they had no political stance, they had no weapons: but they were important – even dangerous – all the same. And they were members of God’s Kingdom – ‘of such is the Kingdom of God’.

And that’s true of Canon Andrew White and his congregation in Baghdad, and the little bands of Christians trying to survive all over the Middle East. It’s not what they do, what their military capacity is: it’s what they are. The oppressors can see the threat. The ISIS, the Taliban, can guess the power of ‘Can it be true?’ Those modern innocents are not just innocent Christians. They have God in them.