The Ache for Justice and the Compassion of God
Pomegranate Place – December 16, 2010
by Ellen Haroutunian
Each week, we’ve begun with the lighting of the advent wreath. The first week we lit the shepherds’ candle, recalling the ache for acceptance in us all and the astonishing welcome of God to these folks who were considered unclean due to the nature of their work and who were cast out from polite society and from temple life. They were considered a seedy bunch. Yet they were the first to be invited to worship God-with-us, the infant Jesus. The unclean were invited to a Holy place.
Week two brought us the story of the Magi. They were astronomers and dabbled in magic. Yet their divinations showed them an amazing message from the stars and legend has it that they traveled long distances to seek this newborn King, bringing gifts that prophetically reflected who this baby was and the path His life would take. They represented the ache in the human heart for meaning, and God’s answer in Himself. And here at this coming of God into the world, in the circle of this little Jewish family, strangers with their strange ways and strange worldviews were also welcomed to worship this baby.
We are now in week three of the Advent season, when we light the pink candle. The pink candle represents joy, and it brings a beautiful irony to the story we will engage tonight. The advent candles were originally borrowed from the observance of Lent. Purple represents the idea of repentance and suffering but Lent is also tempered by hint of the coming joy of Easter and resurrection. Tradition says that the Pope used to hand out pink roses during the 3rd week of Lent as a reminder of the coming joy. That’s where we got the pink candle. The purple of advent also is a call to repentance, that is to change direction and prepare for the coming of God, but there is great joy in the anticipation of His coming.
Read Matthew 2: 13-23 (The Massacre of the Holy Innocents)
That is an intense story, full of mystery and prophecies that would fill dozens of sermons. But there are these couple of verses that describe a horrific crime. This feels like a disconnect, almost a spiritual whiplash – weren’t we just talking about joy? How does this fit? We love the story of the Magi mentioned at the beginning of this Matthew text, who, as Dave mentioned last week, are colorful and intriguing and make it into every Christmas pageant. We love that God drew them from afar and spoke to them through means that they would understand to bring them to the Christ child. We love the story of the humble shepherds and the chorus of angels whose song echoed across the hills in the night. Many of us have a nativity set that contains such characters and many of these sets are quite pretty. Here’s one (see illustration below): it is painted with nice folk art design just like the original one, I’m sure. The stable is clean and the robes of the Magi are tidy and beautiful after their long journey, as are the robes of the new mother and father. There’s no manure and the shepherd doesn’t have B.O. Our quaint nativity scenes don’t often portray the humble reality of poverty and powerless faced by this young couple and their newborn. They don’t show the grit and the dirt, the reality into which God chose to be born as one of us.
I confess that I like the pretty setting. It makes it easier to distance myself from the harsh realities of life faced by the majority of people in this world. Isn’t that our tendency? But then comes the gospel writer Matthew who brings us a part of the story that is almost too much to bear: the slaughter of little ones, baby boys, by the swords and spears of Roman soldiers. In church history this has come to be known as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
What is that horrific story doing in the midst of this pretty one?
These children were not outcasts, not strangers from afar. They were the children of the local villages, your neighbors’ kids and mine. Some doubt that this story actually happened because the 1st century historian Josephus who chronicled so much of Herod’s works didn’t mention this, but others say so many of Herod’s crimes were so horrible that it might not have seemed worth mentioning in comparison. These innocent ones, powerless and voiceless, would have been lost to history. Often, this is still the case, as it is for so many from Darfur or the Congo. The sound of Rachel’s weeping still echoes around this world.
Yet the gospel writer remembers them, right here in the midst of the Christmas story. And they are remembered on December 28th in the Church calendar each year. They are a reminder that there is no easy comfort for those who have suffered violence or violent loss, whether it be the loss of a child, or the experience of war, or even a wounded place deep within yourself. The coming of the infant Christ into a world that was far too dangerous for babies, and a world that is full of unspeakable sorrows is all that can begin to touch the depth of healing that is needed in the human heart.
We live in a world enslaved to fear. Violence is the response. The frightened human heart is enslaved by the constant drive to win, have enough, have more, to own, to grasp, to be justified in who we are. We are in a struggle that goes back to the days of Cain and Abel; where being threatened by the approval received by another brought the will to murder into a brother’s heart. There is an inherent belief in us that for you to have more (wealth, power, affirmation, beauty), means I will have less. We measure ourselves against each other and live by these comparisons as if they tell us who we truly are. The fear and pride in us creates little room for the other to flourish. That has created a world in which the helpless, the voiceless, the meek, the poor, the powerless, the loser, anyone with any weakness, is not safe.
Herod, a King of great power and influence, was afraid of a baby. He quaked at the thought of what this baby could mean to his might and success and beliefs about himself, so he crushed the helpless and innocent to keep his own life intact. I believe that here, he is a picture, even a type, of the nature of the sinful human heart. Sin is the opposite of love. Sin says, I will take from or use you or even destroy you, to protect or elevate me. We know that the powers that be would continue to fear Jesus for his message of love that brought the mountains low and filled the valleys as John the Baptist and Isaiah foretold. He stood against the power structures of this world in a way that brought even the most pious to frustration. This would eventually bring Jesus to crucifixion.
My husband and I have had a tradition in which the Christmas tree is stripped of its limbs, broken in two and the pieces are nailed together to form a cross for Good Friday. This action foretold that Jesus is God’s response to the cruelest, coldest parts of this world. He meets us in the places of our worst rejections, where we have also been hated unto death. [Lutheran Pastor Pam Fickenscher says that] “Matthew invokes the matriarch Rachel in the midst of this story of God-with-us, the birth of a child whose name is a verb: save. God’s salvation may seem far off and inadequate to the mothers who mourn, and to people who hurt, but the promise is deeper than this moment in time. As the scripture told us, the threat of this Herod passes for a time, only to be replaced by another Herod, yet another ruler without scruples. But when this child of Rachel, Jesus, returns to Jerusalem as an adult, God enters into the fate of every doomed child, and every bereft parent” and I would add, every frightened and hurting soul.
I once heard the only answer to a theodicy, which is just a fancy word for the attempt to reconcile the problem of so much evil and suffering in this world with belief in a good God, is a theophany, that is, a manifestation or appearance of God Himself. Here in the Christmas story is our theophany. God coming into the world as a human, born of a woman, born into poverty, into an unclean place, touched by unclean people, who will eventually become the one, the Innocent One, who will also die at the hands of Roman soldiers. He’s God-with-us in every imaginable way.
The Franciscans say that if all that ever happened in the gospel story was the incarnation (God become man), it would have been enough. The coming of God into this world as one of us was enough to change everything because it sang loudly of God’s love and acceptance for humankind. But there is more. At the cross God became the sinner, the Roman soldier, the tax collector, the leper, me, you. And now heaven and earth are forever joined, the veil between the holy and the profane is forever torn open, God and man are supping at the Table together. God overwhelmed the overwhelming powers of the earth with love. And Easter tells us, love wins.
The candle for this week is pink, representing joy. The passage that the gospel writer Matthew quotes about Rachel’s grief is from the prophet Jeremiah. It is significant that in his writing, after Rachel’s lament, Jeremiah goes onto offer words of hope of restoration by God. A promise of joy. Rachel’s heart will be healed.
Yet we still wait, though the Light has come. Our swords are not bent into plowshares yet. The government that lies upon the shoulders of the Christ is not present yet. We ache for the restorative justice of God, when all will be set right and all sorrow and crying and pain will be no more. We have waited and we now wait again. But, the Light that has come into the world has remained. The Apostle John, who is known as the Apostle of Love said, we are like Him in this world. We can seek to overwhelm the world with love.
The Quakers say, When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.