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Isaiah 63:7-9Hebrews 2:10-endMatthew 2:13-end

I don’t know what your year has been like, but I have to say mine’s been a difficult one. One of the problems we’re facing as a diocese is a black hole in our accounts, and the post I was in at the beginning of the year was one of those that was axed in the spring. I’ve been fortunate enough to get the new role that was created, but spending several months not knowing whether I was going to be jobless and – since a house went with the job – homeless, was decidedly unsettling.

In the grand scale of things, that’s not such a big deal. Part of the job that was axed was looking after our world church links. In the few short years I’d being doing that, Bishop John has made two appeals, for relief work following floods in Peru, and for aid for Morogoro diocese in Tanzania, facing a famine. Both of those, famine and flood, are connected to the growing climate emergency the whole world needs to deal with. That, and pretty much every front page news item, puts my problems into perspective.

None of which sounds very Christmassy, does it? But then, neither does our gospel reading: what happened after the wise men went home. Herod, who had killed off various family members he saw as a threat to his throne, is portrayed by Matthew as being just as ruthless towards this new perceived threat, the child the wise men had come looking for, born to be king of the Jews. He sends soldiers to Bethlehem to kill any baby who might possibly fit the description given by astrologers and prophets. So the first Christmas ends with a bloodbath.

In the early autumn I was one of the group that travelled to Rome on the ecumenical pilgrimage with Bishop John, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley. One of the places we visited was the monastery at Subiaco. This was where St Benedict retreated to a cave to begin the life of a monk, and effectively marks the beginning of the Benedictine order, which still runs the monastery there today. In various underground caves, rooms and churches, there are some fantastic frescoes dating from the Middle Ages, including one which is the only painting of St Francis made in his lifetime when he visited the monastery.

One which caught my eye, however, was a fresco of the massacre of the holy innocents. The soldiers advance from the left of the picture, the women on the right are holding their babies, some already dead, some about to be killed. In the centre there are five infants who’ve already been killed. One woman is reaching down to pick up her murdered child. It is not the kind of painting we would like to have up in our churches. And it’s certainly not the sort of story we usually include in our Christmas story.

But it is part of Matthew’s Christmas story. It is the world into which Jesus is born. The same world in which equally awful acts of violence and terror are visited on people today. It is a world that needs a Saviour. It is a world that needs some good news to counter all the bad news, to give us hope of a world in which there will be no bad news. And that’s why we need to tell this awful story at Christmas: to stop our faith being insulated from reality in a Christmas glow, a sentimental bubble of lovely niceness.

Jesus escapes the massacre. Unfairly the warning comes to Joseph alone. The others are not spared, but because of Jesus’ birth as king of the Jews, they bear the brunt of Herod’s wrath. Jesus escapes, but only for a time. The next time Matthew calls him King of the Jews, it is in his rigged trial, it is on board nailed to his cross. He was always born to die, and his escape to Egypt is simply to ensure he dies at the right time.

As today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” There is a common pattern between Christmas and Easter: Jesus is the one who humbles himself to become one with us in our human experience, one with us in our life and death.

It can be an awful world for many people, but Jesus makes the awful world his world. His love is that he sacrifices the comfort of heaven for perils of earth, the life of family and friends to proclaim that love in teaching, outreach and miracle, and life itself for the defeat of death on the cross.

And so, at Christmas, even in a world with as many bad news stories as ours, we still sing with joy:

Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.

Questions:

  • How uncomfortable do you feel when you listen to the story of the Holy Innocents – what was your reaction to listening to the gospel?
  • How will you share the good news about Jesus and his love in a world that often feels broken? In what situations could you put it into action?