Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Power, Flight and Refuge - the feast of the Holy Innocents

Today is the fourth day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The day commemorates the infants of Bethlehem which according to Matthew's Gospel were murdered by King Herod in a desperate attempt to kill the Christ child. Herod had been alerted of his birth by the arrival of the Magi who had come wanting to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. Herod arranges with the Magi that when they find the child they would return to him and tell him its whereabouts so that he could go and pay homage too. Of course Herod really wants to kill the child. The Magi are subsequently warned by angels mot to return to Herod but to leave Judea and return to their homeland. Herod realises what has happened and orders the killing of all boy children in Bethlehem 2 years old and under. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee and he and Mary take flight with the infant Jesus and escape into Egypt while the massacre is carried out.

2.13 Now when they (the Magi) had departed, behold, an angel of the
Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his
mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about
to search for the child, to destroy him."
2.14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 2.15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son."

2.16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men
2.17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
2.18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more."

Matthew's account is short, sparse, six verses. There is a longer and quite dramatic account in the Protoevangelium of James. Here, it's the infant John the Baptist who becomes the focus of Herod's attention, presumably because he has heard of the prodigies surrounding the birth. While the infant boys of Bethlehem are massacred, Elizabeth flees with her infant son and finds miraculous refuge in the mountains. Herod then turns on her husband, Zechariah, who is murdered in the Temple by the soldiers.

21. And, behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judæa. And there was a great
commotion in Bethlehem of Judæa, for Magi came, saying: Where is he that is born
king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to
worship him. And when Herod heard, he was much disturbed, and sent officers to
the Magi. And he sent for the priests, and examined them, saying: How is it
written about the Christ? Where is He to be born? And they said: In Bethlehem of
Judæa, for so it is written. And he sent them away. And he examined the Magi,
saying to them: What sign have you seen in reference to the king that has been
born? And the Magi said: We have seen a star of great size shining among these
stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus
knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him. And
Herod said: Go and seek him; and if you find him, let me know, in order that I
also may go and worship him. And the Magi went out. And, behold, the star which
they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it
stood over the top of the cave. And the Magi saw the infant with His mother
Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned by the angel not to go into Judæa, they went into their
own country by another road.

22. And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.

23. And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where have you hid your son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was
enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to
him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is your son? For you know that your
life is in my hand. And Zacharias said: I am God's martyr, if you shed my blood;
for the Lord will receive my spirit, because you shed innocent blood at the
vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak.
And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.

24. But at the hour of the salutation the priests went away, and Zacharias did not come forth to meet them with a blessing, according to his custom. And the priests
stood waiting for Zacharias to salute him at the prayer, and to glorify the Most
High. And he still delaying, they were all afraid. But one of them ventured to
go in, and he saw clotted blood beside the altar; and he heard a voice saying:
Zacharias has been murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped up until his
avenger come. And hearing this saying, he was afraid, and went out and told it
to the priests. And they ventured in, and saw what had happened; and the
fretwork of the temple made a wailing noise, and they rent their clothes from
the top even to the bottom. And they found not his body, but they found his
blood turned into stone. And they were afraid, and went out and reported to the
people that Zacharias had been murdered. And all the tribes of the people heard,
and mourned, and lamented for him three days and three nights.

This account omits the flight into Egypt. Why? Who can say? Did Herod carry out a massacre of children? We don't know. It's only related in Matthew and other Christian texts. It would certainly be in character and that in the end is the only judgement that can be made. History must here defer to story and it's the story or stories that are most important here not some fundamentalist attempt to step through the text into ancient Palestine. And so for this day I put the two texts, the two oldest accounts of this narrative of ruthless power and terror, side by side. I do so as a reminder that the Christmas story is not one merely about bourgeois niceties and warm feelings but also contains within it horror and dread, fear and flight. These are stories that still have resonance in our world; they describe events that are taking place all the time in our world. Power, arrogance and cruelty and fear and flight and refuge. The need for refuge has particular significance here in Australia given the shameless and cruel demonisation and victimisation of asylum seekers fleeing to this land. I was heartened at Christmas Mass to hear a sermon about the rights of asylum seekers and not the usual vacuous or worse. And so to finish this post I'll point you to Abdul Karim Hekmat's account of his voyage seeking asylum here in this country and why.
If you celebrate Christmas then the only response to those seeking refuge is welcome.

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