There is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words into the ends of the world.
(Ps. xix. 3,4)
Today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents recalls to our spiritual memory King Herod’s infanticide or slaughter of all young boys, two years and younger, in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth. St. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to record the event, and he says that the action fulfilled a prophesy written in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Jer. xxxi. 15) St. Matthew believes that prior to the coming of salvation that the adult Jesus Christ would bring to all people, Jeremiah had prophesied the slaughter of innocent Jewish children, this time not by foreign invaders of ancient Israel, but by the half-Jewish King Herod the Great, the Roman client-king of Judaea. (Wiki…) Rachel was the daughter of Laban and the wife of Jacob or Israel, and like her mother-in-law Rebekah and grandmother-in-law Sarah had trouble conceiving, probably having lost many of her babies in the womb or as still-births, even though she bore two sons who lived – Joseph and Benjamin. Thus, here she symbolizes every mother who weeps for her own lost child in particular and for the lost spiritual children of Israel in general. In both cases, her weeping without comfort is a sign of one who does not yet know of the deliverance and salvation that Jesus Christ will bring both to all people and the Holy Innocents whom Herod slaughters.
But let us look a bit at the details of the massacre. St. Matthew tells us that three Wise men from the East had arrived at the court of Herod asking, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.(St. Matthew ii. 2) The Wise Men were thought to be astrologers whose scientific calculations had moved them out and away from their native lands by a star which pointed to the birth of the King of the Jews. In them both knowledge of Jewish history and science combined to draw them by a natural sign to a supernatural wonder. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Ibid, 3) So Herod consulted his theologians, askimg where the King of the Jews or Messiah was prophesied to be born, and they told him in Bethlehem of Judaea. And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: For out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. (Ibid, 5,6) So Herod then sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem saying, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. (Ibid, 8)And though we do not read that Herod sent a military escort to Bethlehem with the Wise Men’s caravans, he probably had the equivalent of FBI or CIA agents make the journey in disguise. It is clear that he feels threatened, probably superstitiously so.
So we read that the Wise Men departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Ibid, 9-12) If Herod’s agents had seen this, they would have reported back to Herod an event that seemed wholly absurd. They would have seen these Wise Men and their companies of retainers bowing down before a poor child, born in a cave, surrounded by his ordinary parents, simple shepherds, and farm animals. The picture would have struck them as ridiculous and bizarre.
What we do know is that because the Wise Men chose to ignore Herod’s request and travelled back to their homes by another way, the Judean King’s pride and egotistical self-importance was wounded. He would have thought that they not only disregarded his royal status but dishonored his curiosity and wonder. And so his response was violent. Herod was a violent man by habit and custom. He has been described as a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis and [was] prepared to commit any crime to gratify his own unbounded ambition. (Wiki…) Of course, even violent and paranoid narcissists are not without their successes. He had renovated the Second Temple at Jerusalem, had constructed the great sea port and city of Caesarea Maritima in honor of the divine Emperor Octavian Augustus, and had built the great defensive fortresses of Herodium and Massada. But at the same time he was a paranoid and fearful megalomaniac. The Romans gave him the honorary title of King of the Jews in 40 B.C., though he was clearly a puppet ruler. Perhaps for this reason he lived always in fear of any threats to his rule. He didn’t even trust the members of his own family. He executed his wife Mariamne, and three of his sons – Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobolus. He had a personal bodyguard of 2000 soldiers, and his secret police monitored the lives of the Jewish people. Some historians say that he was afflicted with manic depression and constant anxiety attacks. He feared the Jews as much as his Roman overlords.
And so we should not be surprised with what we read next in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the young boys that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. (Ibid, 16) Scripture tells us that Joseph was warned of this immanent slaughter in a dream and took the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child into Egyptian exile.
St. Matthew tells us that the reaction of the mothers of the murdered babies was akin to Jeremiah’s prophesy. In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Idem) The mothers did not yet know that their babies were the first Christian martyrs. In all likelihood they did not even know that the Christ Child had been born in their immediate surroundings. They would not know that their children died because the world rejected Jesus Christ, sent Him into exile with His parents, and was so fearful of His coming. Jerusalem and its earthly king, the world and her earthly kings and rulers, never condoner any kind of competition to their power, rule, and governance. In order to ensure the perpetuation of their earthly power and its maintenance, men are constantly killing off that innocence and purity that reveal the true nature of their inner motivation and spiritual disposition.
St. Quodvultdeus, whose name means what God wants, Bishop of Carthage in North Africa in the 5th century, and finally exiled to Naples, says this about Herod: When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come. (Sermon: Holy Innocents) Herod is afraid of what he might lose and not intrigued by what he might gain with Jesus Christ’s birth. The Saint continues: Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this, you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children. (Idem)
But is Herod so unlike the rest of us? Don’t we really fear what it might cost us for the Savior of the world to be born into our lives? Christ doesn’t necessarily want to dethrone us externally and visibly, but He does want to be born to reign from the throne of our hearts. He wants to get at us where we are most vulnerable, most weak, most powerless, most fearful, and most full of anxiety. He wants to get at the Herod in all of us, and He wants to dethrone that Herodian, demonic possession that resists His innocence, which alone can rid us of our sin. Of course, we do find this most disturbing and unsettling. We want God at a safe distance, the Hallmark Jesus, whose presence comes no closer than an image on a greeting card. We are afraid and fearful of what the birth of Jesus Christ in our lives might actually mean. We clutch desperately to all rights to rule and govern ourselves. And yet the sad thing is that we are not in control of ourselves. We are ruled and governed by fear, anxiety, worry, and depression. And so in order to sustain the charade of self-control, we manipulate others. And all this because we are so pathetically afraid of what God wants to do in and through us with the birth of His Son!
St. Quodvultdeus’ tells us, The Holy Innocent children die for Christ, though they do not know it. That is why we remember them as Christian martyrs, even though they did not know Christ. Unselfconsciously and unwittingly, they were drawn into Christ’s army long before He assumed His earthly, adult mission of salvation to us all. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation. (Idem) The Holy Innocents were part of God’s plan for our salvation that swept over the world as His Grace drew others into the wake of His Incarnation. Long before they could even choose to follow Christ, they were cut down and killed precisely because Herod wagered that one of them was bound to have been the Christ. So the Holy Innocents were killed for being the first Christians, long before the Christian religion had even found definition in the adult life of Jesus Christ! Because of Christ, for Christ, and as Christ, they were all martyred innocently as He would be some time later. Yet we need not mourn their loss. Rather, we should laud and celebrate Heaven’s gain. They pray for us. Thus, as they died for Him, we too can die, that He may reign as King supreme not only from their hearts but from ours also. Amen.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory,
the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
(St. John i. 14)
This evening you and I bring our Advent journey to a close. In Advent we labored to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life. (Advent Collect) In Advent season we struggled to die to ourselves that the Word that was made flesh long ago might be made flesh in us tonight. God the Father’s Word is His only and everlastingly begotten Son. This Word is the Father’s spoken Wisdom and Desire for every created thing in general and for man in particular. For just as we know other men by their words, so we know God only by His Word. Christians believe that God’s Word was made flesh in Jesus Christ in order that the Father’s Wisdom and Desire might not only define the life of the historical Jesus, but through His birth, life, death, and resurrection might also enable us to be so born again that we might be saved. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22) God’s Word was made flesh and [dwells] among us that we who come from God, are made by God, are conserved by God, may in the end return to God.
But before we get to God’s Word made flesh and learn how Christ’s birth is meant to become our own, we might want to follow both the author of tonight’s Gospel, St. John, in order to form a clearer picture of this God who comes to save us in His Son. St. John, according to Holy Tradition, lived a very long life. He was probably the youngest of the Apostles, in his own Gospel described uniquely as the disciple whom Jesus loved… who also leaned on His breast at the [last] supper. (St. John xxi. 20) He alone amongst the Apostles stood at the foot of the Cross, and into his care Jesus entrusted His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later he evangelized in Asia Minor and was thought to have outlived all of his brother Apostles, who died as Martyrs. The 2nd century spiritual son of the Apostles, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, tells us that after Saints Peter and Paul were martyred, and Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke had compiled their Gospels, St. John wrote his while living in Ephesus. (Ad.Haer. iii. 1.1) So St. John was quite old when, in the midst of Pentecostal fire, moving back from Christ’s Ascension, Resurrection, Crucifixion, and holy life, he wrote his Gospel. He knows the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke but is called to dig beneath human history deep into the flesh of the human Jesus to find the Divine nature and essence that defined His earthly manifestation. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (St. John i. 14) Through the life, light, and love of the historical Jesus, St. John perceives and embraces a glory that could be begotten only by God. In Jesus’ flesh John discovers the Word which was so gloriously full of God’s life, light, and love of God that it has been born again in his own heart.
And yet John shares the truth that this Word has been born again in his own life because he knows that the same Word longs to be born again in the hearts of all others who believe on His name: which [will be] born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (Ibid, 12, 13) This same Word [that] is made flesh in his life always desires to be made flesh in those who hear and receive Him in their hearts, who believe on His name, and who are thus given the power to become the sons of God. (Ibid, 13) He [had come] unto His own people, Jews living at the time of His Incarnation, but His own received Him not, (Ibid, 11) because they arrogantly and mistakenly thought that their relation to God as His sons and daughters was based on blood, the will of the flesh, and the will of man. (Idem) They thought that they were chosen and destined for salvation because of their human birth from Jewish mothers, their circumcision, and their obedience to the external and visible Law. John says that man relates to God and salvation only when the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is made flesh in the human heart through faith. John says elsewhere that God is love, and he that abideth in love, abideth in God and God in him. (1 St. John iv. 16) John remembers that, God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (Ibid, 9)
And yet John knows that this Word, this Son of God, God’s love, has been coming into the world long before He joined Himself to human nature in the womb of the Virgin. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. (Ibid, 10) John the Baptist had tried to alert the world to His coming. [John Baptist] came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (Ibid, 7-9) The Word made flesh, the coming Son of God, is the Light or Wisdom of God that illuminates, enlightens, informs, defines, and makes sense of the creation’s existence and condition. But though this light is come into the world…men [love] darkness rather than light, because their deeds [are] evil. (St. John iii. 19) Furthermore, He says that all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. (Ibid, 3) Through His Word of His Wisdom and Love, God chooses freely, without compulsion or need and out of sheer joy and ecstasy, to make and to create, to preserve and sustain all things. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. Through his loving Word, God gives life to all things. But in addition He gives meaning, definition, truth, intention, and purpose through the life that is the light of all men’s potential consciousness. The living and loving light offers itself always to the minds and hearts of men, who with the angels are called to see and understand, to cherish and treasure the knowledge and love of God’s plan and purpose for the whole creation.
But the living and loving light, then as now, encounters resistance, obduracy, and hardness of heart from the souls of sinful men and fallen angels. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (Ibid, 4,5) There is darkness in men and angels which has rejected the living and loving light of God’s Word. But in the presence of God the darkness has no power, and the best that it can do is to resist, reject, and renounce God’s Word. So John sees that foolish sinful angels fall to the earth and do all that they can to carry men with them into eternal, infernal isolation from God’s living and loving light and Word.
But St. John is interested in carrying us back to before all beginnings in order to show us that, in the end, nothing can oppose or overcome God’s Word. In articulating the vision and voice of the eternally-begotten life, light, and love of the Father’s Word, St. John reveals to us the Second Person of the Trinity, who can and will save us if we surrender to His birth. What is born of the Blessed Virgin Mary is God’s own eternally-begotten Word made flesh. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him and without Him was nothing made that was made. (Ibid, 1-3) From Heaven’s side, the Word is the eternally-expressed articulation of the Father’s desire and intention. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. (Ibid, 14) From earth’s side, the Word joins itself to human nature, enlarges and deepens its unity with creation by being born as a man, that being so extraordinarily in possession of the Divine life, light, and love… God Himself would speak in and through Him… so that He would say ‘he who has seen me, has seen the Father.’(Guardini, The Lord, p. 14)
So, St. John’s Prologue is not merely the theological articulation of a return to all beginnings. John moves back to before all beginnings in order that we might find the eternal origin that lovingly longs to join itself to human life in order to save us. We can return to God only when His eternally-generated Son, His everlastingly-begotten Word is made flesh. Jesus said, I am come that [you] might have life, and that [you] might have it more abundantly. (St. John x. 10) And in another place: Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. (St. John iii. 3, 5-7)
St. Augustine, reflecting on St. John’s vision of old, tells us that: He who is the Son of God, for us has become the Son of man, so that we who were the children of men, might become the children of God. Wondrous Exchange! He is made flesh; we become Spirit. The ever living Son of God is born to lovingly die, that we mortal sons of death might be born again, and all be made alive. (Aug: Serm. 121)
Tonight Christ desires be born again in you and me! God’s life, light, and love are found in the eternally-begotten desire of God’s Word to be made flesh in us. And so on this Christmas night, God’s Word addresses our flesh. Will we welcome the Heavenly birth of God’s own Word in the flesh of our sinful souls? In us will Heaven touch earth? Through us will Earth reach Heaven? As we look into this mystical moment, let us lovingly long for His birth in our hearts and delight to sing:
Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter ! day in night !
Heaven in earth ! and God in man !
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to earth !
(R. Crashaw: Nativity…)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: