O little Town of Bethlehem! How still we see thee lie!
No! Not today! Did you hear today’s Gospel reading – blood is running in the streets of Bethlehem! Mothers are weeping for their dead children!
In truth, I don’t know if there has ever been “deep and dreamless sleep” in the little town of Bethlehem but it’s been a centre of tension and chaos for all of my lifetime and never more so than over this current Christmas season!
Yesterday I published an article entitled “Santa didn’t make it to Palestine this year” in which I outlined a series of violent incidents that have taken place in Gaza and the West Bank over this blessed season of goodwill!
- Scores of Bedouin refugees, including 32 children, were made homeless after a series of housing demolitions in the West Bank.
- Warplanes and tanks killed a number of civilians in Gaza, including a 3 year-old girl.
- On Christmas Eve, IDF soldiers raided the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem –harassing the beleaguered refugee population.
The real irony of this last act of intimidation, I thought, was that the army was trying to conduct some sort of census of the refugees in the Bethlehem camp, with a particular emphasis on profiling and registering young people.
I don’t know if either the authorities or any of the camp’s residents saw the apparent link with the 1st century census Luke talks about that forced Joseph and Mary to come to Bethlehem but the irony certainly wasn’t lost on me!
In my article I made the point that disaster seems to strike Palestine at this time of year almost like clockwork, and it must be more than coincidence!
Perhaps there’s a better word than ‘coincidence’. Does ‘serendipity’ have an opposite? ‘Serendipity’ means ‘happy coincidence’ or ‘pleasant surprise’ doesn’t it? Is there are word for ‘vile coincidence’ or ‘violent surprise’?
Personally, I don’t think it is a coincidence of any sort, just as I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when we open the Bible at this time of year we are confronted with stories of pain and violence and bloodshed right alongside the beautiful depiction of the little ‘Lord Jesus, no crying He makes’.
It’s quite bizarre when you think about it. No sooner have we finished opening the presents on Christmas Day than the church calendar leads us into the ‘Feast of Stephen’.
Secular society tries to mute this out by referring to the day after Christmas as ‘Boxing Day’ for some God-only-knows reason (as I almost never see any boxing happening on Boxing Day). Even so, in the Christian calendar it is the ‘Feast of Stephen’ – Stephen the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for his confession of Christ!
That’s hardly in keeping with the Christmas spirit, is it, and yet no sooner do we then return to church the following Sunday than we’re confronted with this story of the murder of all the baby boys of Bethlehem! Merry Christmas!
It’s almost as if there are two parallel narratives circulating at this time of year – the happy secular narrative that focuses on big, fat elves in red, plush suits, sharing goodwill and generally coating everything with sugar, and the Biblical narrative that contains this strange mixture of celebration and suffering!
- On the one hand there is the promise of the great king who is to be born but, on the other hand, there are complications with the birth from the very outset!
- On the one hand there are angels in the sky, singing of the glory of God, and yet all we see on the ground is the squalor of the stable and its bizarre chorus of shepherds!
- On the one hand the kings of the East are coming to pay tribute to the new-born king with pure and wondrous gifts but, on the other hand, the king-in-residence goes on a killing rampage!
In truth, I love Christmas, and I love the way in which it brings out the best in people. I love the way in which it brings us together and fosters community, and I love the way in which it allows us to step back into our childhoods again (even if for only a moment) and look out at a world where mum and dad have everything under control, where there is peace on earth and goodwill to all, and where God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world!
I find that the ‘spirit of Christmas’ can still take me there, but I recognise too that my fondness for this secular Christmas narrative is also a reflection of the fact that I am part of a very privileged minority that enjoys domestic stability and material security. We only need to look at the spike in suicide statistics that takes place every year at this time to be reminded of the fact that it’s the Biblical narrative with its uncomfortable amalgamation of tinsel and blood that is the narrative of our world.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13f)
Joseph has another dream! He had an earlier dream, you may remember, that urged him to accept Mary’s pregnancy and adopt the child as his own, and he heeded that dream. Now he has another dream, telling him to take the child and run. Again he heeds the dream. He runs. The child survives!
Why did God communicate with Joseph through his dreams? Moreover, why didn’t God give dreams to all the parents of baby boys in Bethlehem, warning them to flee with their children? Moreover, why didn’t God warn King Herod in a dream that he’d better not hurt any more children if he knew what was good for him? Better still, why didn’t God simply kill Herod in his sleep? That would have saved everybody a lot of trouble!
We don’t know the answer to any of those questions, of course. The workings of evil are as mysterious as the workings of Providence! All we do know is what happened: Joseph had a dream, Joseph fled, the little boys of Bethlehem died, Jesus survived!
It is a grizzly scene, but by no means one that we are unfamiliar with. History is full of ‘great’ rulers who haven’t hesitated when it comes to murdering the innocent as a means to advancing their cause.
And it’s no great mystery as to why Herod wanted to kill Jesus. This particular rampage of violence is motivated by same twin demons that lie behind each and every one of history’s holocausts – the twin lusts for money and power!
I don’t claim to be a professional historian by any means, but I think I can say with some degree of confidence that these same demonic twins have been the driving force behind every war in history – from Biblical battles to World Wars to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and beyond!
What is it that is tearing Syria apart at the moment and causing so much death and devastation? It’s not intractable historical issues, it’s not tribal differences, and it’s certainly not religion! Scrape the surface and you will find those same old twin devils lurking there – the lusts for money and power!
And what is at the heart of the ongoing violence in Bethlehem that leads children to be killed, houses to be demolished and refugees to be harassed? …
‘Herod the Great’ is archetypal. He was a great slave of the two great demons – nothing less and certainly nothing more!
Look at Herod’s history! Long before turning his bloodthirsty eyes on the children of Bethlehem he murdered most of his own children, conniving with his son Antipater to have two of his other sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, falsely accused and executed. And then, later, towards the end of his life, he had Antipater executed as well.
His blood-lust didn’t stop with his own children, mind you. He also had his wife, Mariamne, executed, along with most of her family (her brother, mother and grandfather), and this chiefly for the crime of being popular.
Herod, like all those who cling to power, was constantly watching his back, constantly fearing that one of those close to him was about to wrench the throne from him. So he butchered all those who were closest to him, along with anyone else who got in his way. And so it comes as no surprise to find that the report of a king being born in Bethlehem draws a swift and merciless response.
Herod is archetypal, and the actions of Herod and all who follow him – establishing their thrones in pools of blood – are mundanely predictable, but this in no way detracts from the depth and breadth of the chasm of human misery that they leave in their wake: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
“When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”” (Matthew 2:19-20)
Herod is dead! This is the happy ending of our story!
I was reading the reflections of a Syrian priest yesterday who commented on this passage “news of Herod’s death was joyous news that brought good tidings to many, among them Joseph and Mary. We are not sinning if we rejoice and be glad with them.”
It seems rather macabre to rejoice in anybody’s death, and yet these are the parallel tidings of comfort and joy that we find in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapters one and two – the birth of Jesus and the death of Herod!
Herod is dead! All is well! Jesus can safely return to his homeland. He has nothing more to fear from the brokers of political power! Not so, of course!
Herod the Great’ may be dead but there are other Herods to take his place, and this is the story of human history. Every time a tyrant falls, more tyrants are spawned to take his place! The great god Mammon has no shortage of servants! And so the struggle continues, and so the blood continues to flow: O little Town of Bethlehem, streets still awash with blood!
Here endeth the reading! And here, according to the Gospel of Matthew, endeth the Christmas saga, and we have to confess that it’s a pretty low note to finish on, particularly when we compare it to the secular narrative!
The secular Christmas narrative of bells and fairy floss culminates in Santa’s climactic circuit of the globe, depositing gifts-a-plenty into the homes of the well-to-do before scurrying back to the North Pole to prepare for another year. The Biblical story of Christmas ends on a far more ambiguous note!
The beauty of the Biblical Christmas narrative though is that it’s not actually the end of the story at all but rather the beginning of the larger Gospel story.
Christmas is as far as Santa gets, but the Gospel story actually begins at Christmas, and the bell that sounds marks the beginning of round one.
It’s a long and tough fight, with the climactic round taking place when Jesus faces the power-brokers in Jerusalem (and what a bloody round that is!) Yet as this story reminds us, the blood has been flowing since the opening bell!
Does that make the Biblical Christmas narrative look any more palatable? Perhaps? Perhaps not? In terms of the two competing Christmas narratives though, I think our broader community made its choice some time ago as to which one they preferred.
It makes sense. Why would you choose fleeing refugees, murderous kings and weeping mothers when you can stick with sugar and tinsel? I know which one seems more suitable for the kids, and I know which one is easier to market, but I know too which one really has the better ending.
For while the secular story ends happily enough, with well-fed kids sitting happily amongst their piles of presents, it’s the Biblical story that really speaks to the grieving mothers of this world and that leads us to a world beyond the machinations of money and power, that wipes away the tears of Rachel.
We hear the Christmas angels
Their great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 29th of December.