In his birth stories, gospel writer Matthew
gives us the terrible tale sometimes called The massacre of the innocents.
It seemed plausible at the time of writing;
this callously brutal act, ordered
by a despotic monarch
for the sake of preserving his kingship.
In more recent years
historians and scholars
have dared to ask the question:
did it really happen?
They point to a shortage of corroborating evidence
beyond the scriptures;
along with the Moses story,
and the need to solve
the Bethlehem – Nazareth conundrum.
Traditionalists, of which there are a few,
point to the character, or lacking,
of Herod the Great, a ruthless tyrant
who would tolerate no limitations
to his pursuit of power.
Without doubt he was capable
of ordering such a terrible deed,
as have been so many kings and rulers since.
In the last hundred years
there has also been no shortage of tyrant:
dictators who have cruelly
oppressed their own people,
tribal leaders who express their hatred
with guns and machetes,
presidents and Prime Ministers
who declare bloody, high-tech war,
on the slimmest of pretexts.
Few have dared
to directly target children,
but these little ones have borne
more than their share of suffering.
Historical considerations aside,
it is good that this Christmas text reminds us
how the small, the innocent, the weak
and the vulnerable, have so often
paid the price demanded
by the wealthy and the strong.
And still do.
Stanley Spencer paints like a grounded angel;
his Jesus sprawls upon the earth
as one who is at home in the wilderness and humble.
His sad face broods distractedly
over the red hen gathering her precious chicks.
His thoughts will not be contained
within the picture’s frame.
At one with creation,
and aware of the complex threads
of interdependence between its creatures,
bird and insect, fox and fowl;
he understands darkly the pain and the dying
that are life’s unavoidable consequences.
When he departs, the hen will be on her own
and her brood vulnerable once more.
Ah, Jesus, you cannot be everywhere;
you will have to allow ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’*
to find her own balance;
and you will have to trust
that those whom you have called
will continue to weepingly reach with love
to Jerusalem’s waiting children, and all the others.
* In Memoriam A.H.H., a poem by Alfred. Lord Tennyson
The wealthy and powerful ones;
rulers, kings and major shareholders
do a lively trade in information.
They invest some of their ample resources
in finding out stuff, analysing trends and opinion,
and gathering whatever facts can be assembled
from their multiple sources
in order to gain advantage over everyone else.
Knowledge, they say, is power;
who would argue?
In his terrible nativity story, Matthew
presents us with the despotic Herod,
who, sensing a threat to his kingly power
in the unlikely birth of a child,
demands, of his royal advisors,
insight and opinion. It is his hope
that when the appropriate dots
have been successfully joined,
they will indicate a profitable course of action. And just when,
he confidingly enquires of the wise strangers,
feigning concern for the success
of their crazy adventure; did the star first appear?
Having sent the gift-laden travellers to Bethlehem,
in accordance with some long-forgotten oracle,
he awaits their return,
along with the specific details,
(parents, street name and number),
that they will supply.
He must have waited some time;
the successful pilgrims, as the story goes,
were recipients of further information,
and went home by another way.
The ever-pragmatic Herod was unconcerned;
it was a minor inconvenience.
Their answer to his earlier question
had been duly noted by his scribes;
it would be sufficient for his mathematicians
to make the necessary determinations
that would allow his troops to do their job.
The baby’s parents also received advice
that enabled them to choose a path to safety.
Not so blessed were other young children
in Bethlehem. Knowledge, they say, is power;
Micah from Moresheth, in the region of Judah,
gave us Bethlehem as the site
for the birth of the Messiah.
Perhaps he stopped by at the little town
on his one day journey to Jerusalem
to do his prophecy thing.
He posed a challenge for gospel writers,
Luke and Matthew:
how to arrange for Jesus from Nazareth
to be born in Bethlehem, three days south.
For the one it was a census; for the other,
fear, a massacre, and the return to a new home
after the flight to a foreign land.
For the one, the drama of a stable birth
with flights of angels and bewildered shepherds;
the poorest of the poor.
For the other, a fearful escape
and the vulnerability of refugees.
They each give us reason to pause
and reflect upon the strange purposes
of an even stranger God.
I wonder, if Luke was writing today,
might it be the homeless and the hopeless,
camped beneath a bridge,
who would be the subjects of the angelic invitation?
I wonder, if Matthew was writing today,
would he write of the kindness
of the people-smugglers
who helped the Holy family
reach their place of welcome and safety?