Holy Innocents: The Dark Side of Christmas


When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

–Matthew 2:16-18

The Feast of Holy Innocents (December 28) comes right on the heels of Christmas, and reminds us that Christmas had a dark side.  The business of getting Jesus Christ into our world was not a tidy thing, and in fact it came at a horrible cost.  Many people had their lives turned upside down, and many lost their lives altogether.

The Holy Innocents–the boys aged 2 and under who lost their lives in Herod’s rapacious rampage–are the first Christian martyrs.  Tradition has put their number anywhere between 14,000 and 144,000, but modern scholars put it between 10 and 20 because Bethlehem was such a small town.  Josephus mentions this incident, but gives it only passing mention compared to other atrocities committed by Herod.

When we think of such things, we relegate them to an ancient, uncivilized era when barbarous, megalomaniacal rulers roved the earth and could cause thousands to lose their lives at their very whim.  But surely we live in a more civilized and enlightened age.  Surely in our modern era of diplomacy, we are past all that now.

Not so fast, my friend.

With 100 people martyred for their faith every month, Christians rank as the most persecuted religious group according to the relief agency Open Doors, which provides support for Christians and Christian communities worldwide.  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer some form of persecution in 133 countries, or two-thirds of the world’s countries.

And on Christmas Day, 35 people were killed in bombings near Christian churches in Iraq, according to the BBC.

More troubling than this, however, is the fact that almost half of Iraq’s Christian population has fled the country since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Seems our war on terrorism has had some unintended consequences.

And the Church remains silent.

Well, not completely.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, alluded to this in his Christmas sermon:

Today, singing of Bethlehem, we see injustices in Palestine and Israel, where land is taken or rockets are fired, and the innocent suffer.

We see injustice in the ever more seriously threatened Christian communities of the Middle East. The Prince of Wales highlighted their plight last week. Even this morning a church in Baghdad, where there have been Christians since the 1st century, was bombed and 15 more people testified to their faith with their lives. Christians in the region are attacked and massacred, driven into exile from an area  in which their presence has always been central, undoubted, essential, richly contributing, faithful.

Michael Newnham at Phoenix Preacher is strongly behind the push to free Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor and US citizen who is currently being detained in Iran.  But while we in the free world do a fabulous job of supporting our own, we ignore issues and articles such as this one about the massacre of Christians in the Syrian civil war.

Yet when some bearded old man who is adept at making duck calls gets suspended from his reality show for spouting his views about men’s anuses, it has the full attention of American evangelicals.

Hello misplaced priorities.

American Christians by and large are slow to realize that in many parts of the world, Christians still suffer under Herod’s rapacious rule, now just as much as then.

Rachel still weeps for her children.  Why not we?

Advent Week 4: The Sign of Immanuel

advent4We started the Advent season in Isaiah, and now we return to Isaiah.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:  The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

–Isaiah 7:14

The backstory:  Saul, David, and Solomon were the three greatest kings Israel had.  They ruled in succession over a unified kingdom when Israel was at the height of its power.  After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into north and south, with the northern half going by the name Israel (and sometimes Ephraim) and the southern half going by the name Judah.  Israel (the northern kingdom) had nothing but wicked kings; Judah (the southern kingdom) had a mix of good and wicked kings.  Israel lasted a couple of centuries and then was overrun by the Assyrians.  Judah lasted a couple of centuries longer than Israel but was eventually overrun by the Babylonians.

Israel and Judah did not get along very well, and at this point Israel had allied itself with Aram (one of its neighbors to the north) and was threatening to attack Judah.  The king of Judah at this time was Ahaz, who was not one of their good kings.  Even his name sounds evil.

So at the start of Isaiah 7 we find Ahaz and all the rest of Judah shaking in their boots because word has reached them that Aram and Israel have teamed up and are headed their way.  Ahaz is seriously contemplating the possibility of seeking an alliance with Egypt.  Considering the history that the people of Israel had with Egypt, things must be looking really bad if seeking an alliance with Egypt seems like a good idea.

Isaiah prophesies to Ahaz:  “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid.”  Those two kings from up north are just smoldering stubs of firewood that are about to be snuffed out;  “within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people”.  (Isaiah sure has a way with words, doesn’t he?)  He then asks Ahaz to ask God for a sign that this will come true.  But Ahaz refuses; he does not care about God and will not put him to the test.

So Isaiah says that God will give him a sign anyway:  The virgin will be with child.  Now in this context he is not talking about a virgin birth; the word “virgin” here simply means young woman.  The young woman in question is his (Isaiah’s) wife.  He goes on to say that very soon–before this child is old enough to know right from wrong–both Aram and Israel would be laid waste.  There would then be a very troubled time for Judah as the Assyrians came upon them.

Sure enough, the prophecy was fulfilled.  Everything went down just as Isaiah said it would.  And then everybody forgot all about this little prophecy.  And it just sat there.  For seven hundred years plus, it just sat there.

And then a virgin–an actual virgin, not just a young woman–gave birth to a child.

A virgin girl named Mary and her husband-to-be Joseph were living up in the northlands of Israel.  They were part of a sect that was intentionally waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah.  Sects such as theirs were all over the place at that time, and many were completely disengaged from temple life.

All of a sudden Mary turned up pregnant.  Now, these people did not know anywhere near what we know about biology, but they knew enough to know that virgins don’t get pregnant.  It doesn’t take a degree in molecular biology to understand that.  Joseph knew there had to be another man in the picture somewhere.  He could have had Mary publicly shamed, or possibly stoned as an adulteress.  But he didn’t want to go there, so he made up his mind to divorce her as quietly as possible so that she could marry the child’s father.

Then one night an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:20-21)

Matthew continues:  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’–which means, ‘God with us.’ ”  (Matthew 1:22-23)

Here Matthew reaches all the way back to that long-forgotten prophecy from Isaiah.  Its significance in relation to the birth of Jesus was not lost on him.  He even sharpens the focus of Isaiah’s prophecy:  “virgin” means not just a young woman but an actual virgin, and “they” will call her son Immanuel.  Not just the young woman, but all the people.

Twice the Lord said “Do not be afraid”.  First he said it through Isaiah to the king Ahaz.  But Ahaz refused the sign, and it did not go well for him or his kingdom.  Then he said it again through the angel to Joseph.  Joseph believed, and became the earthly surrogate father to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Through him, deliverance came, not just for the kingdom of Judah in a troubled time in its history, but for all the world.  Not from a besieging army, but from the curse of sin which holds all people and all creation in bondage.

Advent Week 3: A Huge Question


When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see.  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.  Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John:  “What did you go out into the desert to see?  A reed swayed by the wind?  If not, what did you go out to see?  A man dressed in fine clothes?  No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.  Then what did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written:

” ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“I tell you the truth:  Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.  For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.  And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.  He who has ears, let him hear.”

–Matthew 11:2-15

Funny how things change.  Just last week we saw John the Baptist ministering in power.  Now here he is, rotting in a prison cell.  Last week we saw John the Baptist preaching a baptism of repentance at the Jordan River and calling Israel back to her roots.  Now we see him asking a huge and poignant question:  Are you (Jesus) the one who was to come, or should we look for someone else?

The above reading is traditional for the third Sunday of Advent, the one called “Gaudete” (Latin for “Rejoice”).  If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.  This is a Sunday of rejoicing amidst the dark, dreary December gloom, a respite from the somber tone of the Advent season.

But what a reading.  Kind of a downer, wouldn’t you say?

But the Lord is near.  There is joy in that, even for one in prison.

The majority view on this passage is that this question arose out of a moment of doubt.  You see, John the Baptist had some not so nice words to say to Herod about him taking up with his brother’s estranged wife, and that got him thrown in jail.  Roman prisons are not very nice places, so it’s understandable that John might have a moment of weakness in which he would forget who he was and what God had sent him into the world to do, and would need to hear a reassuring word from Jesus to set him straight.  After all, the Jesus he came wasn’t exactly the Jesus he was expecting.  He had preached a Jesus who would come with winnowing fork in hand to separate the faithful wheat from the unbelieving chaff.  The axe was laid to the dead root of faithless Israel and every unbelieving branch would be cut off and thrown into eternal fire.  He baptized with water, but the coming Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Yet this Jesus came humbly and gently.  He submitted to John’s baptism in solidarity with other sinners.  He scandalized the religious powers-that-be by his ready association with the lowest and most notorious sinners of that culture.  He worked miracles, healed diseases, liberated demon-possessed people, and preached the kingdom of God not in power but in meekness.

But there is an alternate view:  Perhaps John the Baptist was not asking this question for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his disciples.  All along John the Baptist knew that his role was to point to Jesus.  After Jesus came he sent his disciples to follow Jesus, saying such things as “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  Now he wanted, instead of to tell his disciples one more time that Jesus is the one who was to come, to have them hear it straight out of his mouth.  He did not want to see his followers become disheartened by his imprisonment.

There is something compelling about this viewpoint.  John’s disciples needed to know that this meek, humble, unassuming Jesus who probably did not fit their expectations of what the Messiah ought to look like, was indeed the Messiah.  Jesus was the one to follow, not John.  Jesus must increase, John must decrease.  To the end, John was a way-preparer and a signpost pointing others to Jesus.  Even in prison, John was fulfilling his destiny as a voice crying out in the wilderness.

But whichever the case is, the overarching point here is the same:  The way of the kingdom of God is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the way of dying to self and choosing weakness over strength.  Not our way of doing things.

Our world’s way of doing things is all about power.  The world is run by the Herods and the Pontius Pilates.  Even the way of peace is all about power, because peace is maintained by military might and the threat of destruction for all who step out of line.  We respect power.  We fear it.  We covet it.  If only we could make people see things our way, then the kingdom of God would appear in our midst.

John the Baptist came in power.  He knew what he stood for and was not shaken by every little change in the political and cultural winds of his day.  He did not care for creature comforts or concern himself with what he would eat or what he would wear.  He was prophesied by Malachi and came in the spirit and power of Elijah.  Jesus himself said that he was the greatest of all born of women.

And yet Jesus also said that even the least in the kingdom of God–the tiniest baptized baby, the lowliest believer, the most overwhelmed new Christian–is greater than John the Baptist.  For this is not a kingdom of power or of law.

This kingdom suffers violence.  Forceful men lay hold of it.  Even the greatest prophet can be imprisoned and later beheaded.  Even the Son of God can be arrested, beaten, and crucified.  His believers are persecuted and martyred, even today in many parts of the world.  His Church, the movement which he launched, is a disorganized, divided, scattered mess.  Not at all like the slick corporations, powerful kingdoms, and yes, megachurches, of our world.  To the world it looks as if we Christians are nothing more than just a bunch of big fat losers following the biggest loser of all.

One of the most poignant themes in Lutheran teaching is the idea of the God who hides himself in weakness.  In a world that is all about power, God does not seek to have His way through power.  Instead, He goes the exact opposite way and hides Himself in weakness.  A crucified first-century Roman criminal is the Savior of the world.  A knockoff sect of Judaism that never should have made it out of the first century is a movement that has changed the world.  A disorganized, divided, scattered mess is the Church, “terrible as an army with banners” as C. S. Lewis put it, ushering in the Kingdom of God in our world.  And a message that the world does not want to hear is the Gospel of hope for all the world.

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.

–2 Corinthians 4:7-11

Such is the way of Advent, and is why this downer of a reading is appropriate for the Sunday called “Gaudete”.  Just as God’s glory and power are hidden in weakness, just as the power of the Church remains hidden in a fractious and divisive movement, just as the power and hope of the Gospel are hidden in a message the world does not want to hear, so the joy and hope of Christmas are hidden in a dark season called Advent, and the rejoicing of this Sunday called “Gaudete” is hidden in this downer of a reading.

Advent Week 2: Sinai’s Last Thunder

advent2The dominant theme of the Advent season is waiting, as we await (symbolically) the coming of Jesus Christ which we celebrate on Christmas while we await (for real) the promised return of Christ at the end of the age.  One of the major sub-themes of Advent is repentance, and we come face-to-face with this in the character of John the Baptist, who figures large in the traditional readings for the second Sunday of Advent.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene–during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’ ”

–Luke 3:1-6

Those of you who attended the University of Georgia are probably familiar with Brother Jed.  Brother Jed would show up from time to time, set up shop in the busy courtyard area at the center of campus, and just start preaching.  He would hurl epithets like “fornicator” or “whoremonger”, apparently randomly, at the passers-by, mixed with harsh warnings about how such people can never inherit the kingdom of God.  It was always great sport to hear him go off.  He frequently drew a crowd, some of whom egged him on while others just stood back and watched the show.  Every major college campus has its own Brother Jed, who probably goes by a different name but looks and sounds remarkably similar.

John the Baptist was a lot like Brother Jed.  Except that he didn’t look nearly as nice.  His hair was strange.  His clothes were strange.  His diet was strange.  His smell was probably very strange.

John the Baptist was a prophet.  Almost every Old Testament prophetic writing begins with “The word of the Lord came to _____ son of _____” or something similar.  Luke makes this connection clear:  in verse 2, after going to great lengths to provide historical context for John the Baptist’s ministry, he says “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”  This places John the Baptist squarely in the line of Old Testament prophets.

John the Baptist was the last of these prophets.  The prophets were men and women who put themselves outside the world of Jewish religion and culture in order to speak the words of God directly to Israel.  They often said and did strange, provocative things in order to get the people’s attention and get their message across.  They called Israel to repentance, to rededicate themselves to the law and the covenant they entered into with Moses at Sinai.

Like the prophets before him, John the Baptist called upon Israel to repent for the kingdom of God was at hand.  People came out into the desert to see him and be baptized by him in the Jordan River.  Many centuries ago, Israel had passed through the desert and crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land after receiving the law at Sinai.  Now here they were again, going into the desert again and crossing the Jordan again.  The Old Covenant had come full circle.

In Advent we heed the message of John the Baptist to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.  Historically Advent has been a season of fasting.  Churches do things differently with respect to the liturgy during the Advent season.  The colors of Advent are deep purple and dark blue, in keeping with the darker and more somber tone that is appropriate for a season of repentance.

In Advent we take stock of all the ways that we have fallen short of God’s law.  We honestly face up to the fact that our lives are a mess, our families are a mess, our churches are a mess, our communities are a mess, our nation is a mess, and our world is a mess.  We recognize that unless Jesus saves us we will not be saved.

Advent Week 1: The Mountain of the Lord

advent1Welcome to Advent.

It has recently come to my attention that the American Family Association is calling for a boycott of Radio Shack.  Why?  Because they use the word “holiday” instead of “Christmas” in their advertising during this time of year.  This sort of thing has become increasingly prevalent, so much so that I now yawn in the face of news items that another retailer is subject to the ire of the evangelical world for using “holiday” instead of “Christmas”.

I would venture to say that for a lot of you, this is the world you grew up in during the time leading up to Christmas.  A world full of diatribes about how Christ has been “X-ed” out of Christmas and warnings about leaving Christ out of Christmas.  Some of you may have heard warnings about the evils of Christmas celebrations involving alcohol.  But almost all of you, I would imagine, heard warnings and rants about how the world just doesn’t have a clue anymore as to what Christmas is all about.  (As if there was once a time when things were better.)

Yes, we evangelicals do tend to go negative this time of year.  And perhaps deservedly so.  The pagans have taken back their holiday with a vengeance, albeit with our St. Nicholas, our wise men and our music thrown into the mix.  And on some level this probably does deserve a certain amount of “Bah! Humbug” from the Church.  But before we go rushing in to kick the world out of our treasure closet and yell at them to lay off our decorations and our music, let’s take a moment to ask them what they found.  Let’s teach them what it all means.  Let’s connect the dots from Santa Claus to St. Nicholas, and on to the Incarnation.  Recognize that knowing what Christmas is all about does not add ten points to your score.  It just makes it that much more amazing.

With that in mind, let us move to a completely different world for the next four weeks.

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.

Advent is a season of darkness.  Not the special darkness of Lent which comes from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but the general darkness of a world where chaos reigns, a world waiting for the word that is Christ to speak light and order into it, a world broken and fallen and subjected to bondage because of sin and awaiting the coming of the Redeemer who was promised as early as Genesis 3:15.

Advent is a season of waiting.  For two thousand years plus, the Israelites waited for their promised Messiah.  For the next four weeks we wait with them, remembering their waiting as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ on Christmas Day, and waiting (for real) for Christ to come again at the end of the age, as he promised he would.

To guide our thinking as we prepare to enter the Advent season, I now direct you to one of the traditional readings for the first Sunday of Advent:

In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

–Isaiah 2:2-5

The story of Israel was a recurring cycle of creation, rebellion, exile, and restoration.  This reached its climax when the Israelites were forcibly removed from their land and resettled in Babylon.  There they suffered the loss of every trace and vestige of their identity as God’s people: kingdom, land, holy city, temple, priesthood, sacrifice, etc.  Bereft of all these things, the words of God’s promises took on an entirely new significance for them.  And though they eventually returned home to the Promised Land, it was a bittersweet homecoming for them as it became quickly clear that much of their hope would await future fulfillment.  The conditions depicted in the above reading were most emphatically not in place:

–The people of the world were NOT streaming to Jerusalem to learn of the Lord and His ways.
–The nations were NOT submitting themselves to the law of the Lord.
–Injustice and oppression lived on with a vengeance throughout the world.
–Conflict and war raged on throughout the world, with no end in sight.

So the people of Israel waited.  They cried out to God to come, to hear their cries, to take note of their misery, to bring about the long-promised new creation.

In Advent we join them.  But we do so from a different vantage point.  Christ has already come.  Through his death on the cross he has broken the back of sin and death.  Ultimate victory is certain, though the battle continues to be messy and there remains much work to be done.  So we continue to lament, cry out, and persevere in hope as we await the final fulfillment of Christ’s promises to return at the end of the age.

To further guide our thinking as we enter the Advent season, I close with a traditional hymn for this time, which some of you may be familiar with, called “O Come, O Come, Immanuel”.

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

You can find the full text here.