My church follows a calendar. We walk through the year attentive to times and seasons. As a self-employed person, I find a measure of structure comforting; the older I’ve grown, the more essential this frame has become. Christmas shines brighter because I’ve waited for it through four weeks of Advent, and it lasts longer because I am in the twelve days of Christmas rather than the mad rush before it. I’m not saying everybody has to do it this way. But I am saying it helps me.
In the Episcopal Church, every Sunday is a mini-Easter, and only ten holy days take precedence of a Sunday. The rest are transferred to the next open day. Christmas Day is followed by the Feast of St. Stephen on the 26th, St. John on the 27th, and Holy Innocents on the 28th. Nothing like St. Stephen’s martyrdom to cleanse the palate over-sated with tinsel and pop starts warbling about drummer boys. But this year, because the 25th was a Friday, John and the Innocents were moved, and so the Feast of the Holy Innocents fell on the 29th, my birthday (and also that of Mary Tyler Moore – happy birthday, Mary! – and Pablo Casals).
The story of the innocents is told in Matthew’s gospel. Here’s a brief recap, for those who are unfamiliar with it. Herod is king of Judea. He is something of a pill, and a tad insecure. One day he is visited by “wise men from the East” who have been reading old prophecies and following a star. They are on their way to find the one who has been born king of the Jews so as to worship him, and are stopping in to ask directions at the court of the current king. Like many, they are focused where they are going, and don’t see where they are.
So how wise were they? Wise enough to ask for directions, and they get points for that. But not wise enough to know whom to ask. Herod smiles, says wait a minute, consults with his counselors (who had not previously shared this intell with him because they, while perhaps not wise, were not idiots, either) comes back and says, “Bethlehem, and stop back in on the way back to tell me exactly where he is, so I can go and worship him too.” The travelers agree, and leave.
They find the child, present their gifts, and then, warned in a dream to avoid Herod, decide to go home by another route (because in the Bible a dream is never “just a dream”). Meanwhile, Herod mounts a campaign to find and kill that child. Joseph and Mary, warned of this in a dream, flee to Egypt as refugees. Herod, tricked by the wise men and unable to find the exact kid he’s looking for, flies into a rage and has all the boy babies under two years old killed.
I have read this story many times over the years, and each time noticed something new in it. This past Sunday, the young woman behind me suckled her tiny, tiny baby during the sermon. Matthew is writing about babies just like that, so new that their cries are still the little mews of kittens. And he’s writing about the ones who have learned both to walk, and to say “No!”, like that boy a few rows in front of me. I imagine them ripped from their mothers’ arms and cannot stand the imagining.
We live on an island surrounded by tidal waves of refugees, millions of people so afraid of what is coming at them that they are running as best they can. They, like Mary and Joseph, are parents risking everything, everything, to save their children. They are children trying to save their parents. They are friends, they are lovers. And if I were one… what if I were one, blocked at the border simply because I’m American, or wear a cross, and terrorist Timothy McVeigh was American, and members of the Army of God bombed clinics and murdered doctors; what if the most powerful nation on earth was seriously considering electing to high office and great power those who would keep me out of everywhere by any means available and would have all means available to do so, including bombing my people into dust, and killing all the children?
These are those who would “out-Herod Herod”, and they are on television every day. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it rhymes, and everything that has happened can happen again in some way. December 29th is already loaded every year. On this day in 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was hacked to death at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral as he celebrated mass. On this day in 1890, over 300 Lakota Sioux men, women, elders, and infants, were slaughtered by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Their bodies froze where they fell. Some of the soldiers received medals.
My birthday is a day of dust-to-dust, and so is yours. So is yours. And so is every day. Let us be a little more observant than the wise men, and really see where we are. Things said in our name can easily and swiftly become things done that we would not do, so let us stand together, with unshakable love, and refuse to let that happen. For all the holy innocents.