Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Slaughter of the Innocents: Bethlehem & Newtown. December 23, 2012



The Simon & Garfunkel album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” was released in 1966.  I’ve thought during this past week about a song from that album which I had not thought of in a long time.  It’s the last song on the album, their rendition of “Silent Night.”
It starts with a simple rendering of this Christmas lullaby singing in beautiful harmony “all is calm, all is bright”, but by the second verse there was a fade-in of a broadcaster’s voice doing a news report.  It was actual news of the day which spoke of the turmoil of the times with references to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. It also included mention of the trial of Richard Speck, a mass murderer of eight student nurses in Chicago.The words of “Silent Night” and the news of the day made for a haunting irony, and it came back to me as I heard the news of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Twenty children and eight adult lives lost to evil and madness.


From where will come tidings of comfort and joy to Newtown, Connecticut, this year? There are people in Newtown who are taking down their Christmas decorations in sympathy and solidarity with those who will have no joy this Christmas.  People feel guilty celebrating the holiday in the face of their neighbors’ sufferings. I think we in America do not know what to do; we celebrated a wonderful Christmas pageant here at Our Lady of the Pines just a week ago, but we are careful not to have the news on when our little ones are around the television. In fact, you may indeed want to retire to the Narthex if you think this homily might touch too close to the tender hearts of your own children. And that’s perfectly fine.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy in which we celebrate the birth of the Savior.  But if we really look at what is said in the Christmas story we will see an all too realistic account about the human condition and the world in which we live.  Consider the dark chapter in Matthew’s gospel within the nativity narratives which is called the “slaughter of the innocents.”

You know this story. The magi have come in search of the “King of the Jews.”  They inquire at the court of Herod.  Herod is taken aback by the wise men’s question.  He tells the foreign ambassadors to search diligently and when this new born king is found, bring him word and he will also go and pay homage.  It’s a ruse.  But the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and Joseph also receives a dream directive to escape to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.  When Herod learns he has been outfoxed, he orders henchmen to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys two years old and younger.

This was a man who could not accept any competition to his dictatorial authority. This is why, when Herod took on the position as pontificate of Jerusalem, he had his eldest son, Antipater, murdered, along with his wife, Mariamne, and her mother, Alexander. Herod began annihilating members of the Sanhedrin as well as 300 other court officials. In the midst of this barbarity, he had no qualm in killing any child rumored to one day be greater than himself.

With a word spoken and the sweep of his hand, he sent soldiers to the town of Bethlehem to murder every child two years old and younger. I did some research on this during the week. It is estimated that Bethlehem in the first century would have been a town of one thousand persons.  I read in the New Bible Dictionary that statistically there would have been twenty infant males who were murdered, not unlike the 20 children shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Twenty young innocent victims. It stunned me as I was preparing for this message

In Matthew 2 we read of this slaughter, “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

All week long as a nation we have watched the news until we could watch it no more. We have wept, we have wondered, we have gotten angry at the ease in which Adam Lanza could slaughter 26 other human beings, 20 of them children. We have listened to the pundits, to the blamers, to the politicians, and yes, rare voices of wisdom, sympathy, and reason. Today we shall listen to the voice of God in the midst of this new slaughter of the innocents. Let us consider some of the heroes in this carnage:


Teacher Victoria Soto used her body to shield her students, we learned this week. Soto paid for her bravery with her life. “The family received information she was found shielding her students in a closet,” Soto’s cousin Jim Wiltsie told the press. “She put herself between the gunman and her students.”

In her eulogy, the Rev. Meg Boxwell Williams praised Ms. Soto as a “quick-thinking, beautiful, selfless person” who huddled her first-grade pupils into a closet and cupboards and hurried others to escape as a determined gunman invaded the school.

“Her last act was selfless, Christlike in laying down her life for her children.”


Another victim, Anne Marie Murphy, a 52-year-old special education teacher, died trying to shield one of her students as well.


Jesus, who told us that, "Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends;"

I was touched also by an interview with one of the survivors, Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at Sandy Hook. She quickly ushered 15 schoolchildren into a bathroom when she heard shots at the elementary school in Newtown.

She later told ABC News that she urged her students to be quiet so that they would not alert the gunman, telling them that “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out.”

She said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it’s going to be OK’ because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear,” she added.
Only in the grip of love can you make that promise – that everything is going to be OK – and we only know that because of the strength of God’s love.  “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

There are always people who question why God lets a tragedy like this happen.  It is sad to say it, but as 21st century Americans we are insulated from how tenuous life has always been and still is in much of the world.

There are some mysteries we will never understand.  In theology, this is called the question of “theodicy,” why does an all-powerful and all loving God allow bad things to happen to good people has many responses. It has been wrestled with since the days of Job. Such will not bring comfort to the bereaved.  As one rabbi in Newtown said, his job is not to interpret “why,” but simply to be present with grieving families of his congregation and his community.

The teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who shepherded her young students into the bathroom and told them to be quiet because “there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out,” but also told the children she loved them and everything was going to be OK even while thinking these may the last words they ever hear, perhaps gives perfect voice to the meaning of Christmas.

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for in darkness, in silence, in fear, for light. We are waiting for Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ – our good guy who will come and put a stop to the bad guys including Fear, Satan and Death itself.  But even as we wait, we know everything is going to be OK.  Because God loves us.  And that is all we need to hear.



Connecticut Governor Daniel P. Malloy may have said it best with these words: "Evil visited this community today". This is what makes Herod's story and the slaughter of the innocents as part of the real Christmas story. This day and every day evil visits our world, our nation, our communities, our churches, and our lives. Evil is inescapable. Pass more laws... build more prisons... invest in our mental health system. And after all this, there will still be a Herod; there will still be an Adam Lanza.

Evil visited this community today, but so did God. God visited, as proclaimed by Isaiah, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." God has not only visited Newtown, and the families in Aurora Colorado, and he is visiting Syria... and Afghanistan... and homeless shelters... and ICU units... and funeral homes... and hospice care centers... and drug rehabilitation centers... and the subjugated young adolescent female workers in Indonesian garment factories who are trampled in fires.
You could make a good argument that we should save this story for another day—Lent, maybe, or some late night adults-only occasion. But our songs of peace and public displays of charity have not erased the headlines of child poverty, gun violence, and even genocide. If you go to Darfur, or Karachi, or Zimbabwe, or Iraq, and just listen, the sounds of Rachel weeping for her children are not uncommon. 



And so, we must and do weep. We must and do pray for and with all those whose lives were uprooted.  Now we remember – we must remember - how fragile life is and take stock of it every day. If we live letting life pass us by, then every day becomes loss. Parents, hug your kids even more – and kids, hug your parents, and give them some slack--we deserve it. It is right to do.  It is worth it.


Spouses, relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, my brothers and sisters in Christ: Give each other some slack as well. There are more important things than being right. Life on this side is too short. Someday, some moment, it will be over – and possibly without warning. Leave no good undone. For once, don’t forget what you resolve to do now.


Let us Pray:



Dear God, with Rachel, you wail for your children because they are no more. With Jesus, you weep over the death of Lazarus, his friend. Like a mother hen, you yearn to comfort and protect your chicks. In the passion of your Son, you bring all our pains and all our sorrows into your very Self. Bless these who have been lost in Connecticut, bless all those victims of violence, and Maranatha—send your son Jesus quickly. We pray in Jesus name, Amen.

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