john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Isaiah 63 / Matthew 2 - Slaughter of the Innocents

    Good Shepherd Communion 30/12/2007

    Isaiah 63.7-9, Matthew 2.13-23
    When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
    They call it the Massacre of the Innocents, or the Slaughter of the Innocents: one of the stories scripture tells about Christmas which we tend to overlook, because it is very very uncomfortable.

    Today we call it infanticide - the intentional killing of an infant. That's what Herod did in his frantic urge to get rid of the baby King of the Jews. And the word is still in our language today because - sadly - Herod wasn't the last by any means to kill children to protect his own position and further his own ambition.

    Only the Gospel of Matthew mentions King Herod's order to execute all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn "King of the Jews". Many modern biographers of Herod don't think the massacre actually happened. Matthew wrote it, they say, to show that Jesus was the Messiah. He said that Herod's slaughter fulfilled what the prophet Jeremiah had spoken:
    'A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
    Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.'
    Other historians and theologians, however, do insist that the Slaughter of the Innocents really happened. Either way it is a story which continues to throw light on the way our world works.

    According to Matthew, when the Magi came looking for the child Jesus, they first visited Herod the Great to ask if he knew where the baby was. On hearing the Magi ask for 'He that is born King of the Jews', Herod, the Roman client king in Judea, feeling that his throne was in jeopardy, asked the Magi to find the child and return to tell him, so that he could worship him. But of course he really intended to kill the child immediately.

    In dreams God warned the Magi of the king's true intentions, so they returned home by a different route to avoid being forced to betray the child. When Herod discovered this he ordered the slaughter of all male children who were two years old and under. Fortunately for them, according to Matthew, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had fled to Egypt after they too had been warned by an angel in a dream.

    Now this terrible event happened in Bethlehem, a small village, which probably meant that between six and twenty children were killed, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas. If we close the minds of our hearts then we might say, 'that's not many', But if we consider how precious are our own children to us, the loss of maybe twenty or thirty of them suddenly becomes terrifying.

    At this time of year I always remember the deaths of four young men lost in a boat off Iona in December 1998 which people on that tiny island have always since described as being like the loss of a whole generation [2]. Going back to October 1966 we recall the same things being said about the Aberfan disaster where a whole school - 116 children - were lost under a collapsed mountain of colliery waste [3]. The loss of one child is bad enough. Even now - almost fifteen years on - we still tread very carefully in talking about the death of James Bulger here in Liverpool because of the great trauma it has caused us; and what an impact the loss of Rhys Jones has had on all our lives.

    No wonder Herod's slaughter of the innocents has been remembered throughout history. Christians have been commemorating the feast of the "Holy Innocents" since the fifth century, the Church of England on December 28 each year. The story always featured in medieval mystery plays - large-scale dramas which all the people of a town would be involved in. And only last week the BBC's Liverpool Nativity featured Cathy Tyson as a twisted Herod figure ordering the removal of the children, forcing Joseph and Mary to make their escape up William Brown Street and into the protection of the city's people.

    The Slaughter of the Innocents is in the bible because Jesus was born into a broken world, and in this broken world people have always slaughtered innocents.

    The word we use to describe the killing of children is infanticide. In the past in some societies, certain forms of infanticide were allowed - sacrificing children to the gods, for instance, whereas in most modern societies the practice is considered immoral and criminal. But it still takes place - in the Western world usually because of the mental illness or the violent behaviour of the killer, and in some poor countries as a form of population control - sometimes accepted, perhaps quietly, by the rest of society.

    Today it is often the poorest people who resort to this terrible act. Slaughtering innocents takes place in areas of extremely high poverty and overpopulation, such as parts of China and India. In these countries baby girls are more vulnerable - female infanticide is more common than the killing of male babies. Some Western countries practice euthanasia, the abortion or mercy killing of severely damaged babies.

    Despite it being outlawed in most civilised societies Sociologist Stefan Timmerman has noted that "humans in every society studied to date are more likely to be murdered on the day they are born than on any other day of their lives."

    So children have always been vulnerable to being destroyed by others older than them. The reasons why people do this are sometimes economic - in poor societies families just can't afford too many children, and if they have to choose they will usually keep the males because they will grow to be wage-earners (this is all very simplified of course). Infanticide may be a way of keeping the population down because there aren't enough natural resources to go around, it may be to do with ancient customs.

    In our society many factors lead to women having abortions, and that is an enormously complicated debate. In our society children are killed sometimes by parents who fall victim to clinical depression, and cannot cope. And sometimes it is just the madness of a society where children - usually poor, exploited children - play with guns and take out their anger or their madness on others, such as happened with Rhys or all those school killings we hear about often from America.

    Sometimes the killing of children is political. Herod's decision to kill the children of Bethlehem was to do with him wanting to hold onto power. He saw the child Jesus as a real threat to his position, and used his position to try to get rid of him. All over the world today children are lost to exactly the same sort of struggle - in small wars and local conflicts between leaders. Some are child soldiers - in Africa up to 100,000 children, some as young as nine, were estimated to be involved in armed conflict in mid 2004 [4]. And others are the victims of war, in communities razed to the ground in battle.

    You'll be wondering if I can find anything redeeming in any of this. You'll be wondering if I can find anything redeeming in Matthew's story. Some people have tried to redeem it by calling Herod's child victims the first martyrs for Christ; the feast of the Holy Innocents is a celebration of their martyrdom. But they weren't martyrs like all the other martyrs. Because they didn't choose to die. Their deaths were forced on them. Matthew's story makes many believers very uncomfortable, because we are used to the idea of Jesus dying for people, not people dying for Jesus. We are used to the idea of Jesus saving people, not people saving Jesus.

    There really is little redemption to be found in the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents. Except perhaps this - that Matthew's story takes away all the woolliness and the fluffiness of the Christmas story and places the child Jesus squarely in a complicated and brutal world. And that was precisely the world Jesus knew he was coming into. Jesus came to earth with his eyes open to all that was wrong here. He came to set out God's agenda for a different way of living, a loving way of living.

    As an adult Jesus was killed by people worried about his challenge to their high positions and power - his death was a Slaughter of the Innocent.

    But inbetween the flight to Egypt and that death was a life which faced all that was wrong in the world - faced the worst things head on - and offered new hope even to the most hopeless situations. Particularly to the poorest and most hopeless people.

    If we embrace all that his life has to offer us then we become his children. Innocents serving God and making a positive difference in the world. Isaiah describes God's people like this:
    For he said, 'Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely';
    and he became their saviour
    in all their distress.
    It was no messenger or angel
    but his presence that saved them;
    in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all [their] days.
    Following Jesus should help us to make sense of a complicated world. Following Jesus should mean that we don't just survive, but are lifted up as we journey on through this brutal world. For instance next year Christians working with other people of goodwill will continue to work towards community facilities and a better life for the youth and adults of Croxteth Park. And others will continue to campaign tirelessly for changes in the gun laws and ultimately the abolition of the arms trade.

    As we approach 2008 let us look ahead, and recommit ourselves to living life with God - living in the light of his promises to us and hoping to help make the world a better place for the Holy Innocents who will come into it this year.

    [1] Wikipedia consulted for references on Massacre of the Innocents and Infanticide
    [2] 1998 Iona drownings: details here
    [3] Aberfan disaster: Wikipedia
    [4] Statistics from Child soldier website