Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Day Four, Holy Innocents 2014

Random disconnected thoughts today.

Four calling birds or murdered toddler boys? On the fourth day of Christmas . . .

You will notice that the Christian calendar does not go in narrative order. The slaughter of the Holy Innocents happens after the wise men leave Bethlehem, but we don't celebrate the arrival of the wise men to Bethlehem until January 6. Don't let this confuse you.

According to the Wikipedia page for Holy Innocents, there is disagreement about whether this was a historical event. The Gospel of Matthew is the only extant piece of literature to mention it. The writer of Matthew is very concerned with fulfilling passages from the Hebrew scriptures, so he may have told this story to reference Rachel weeping for her children. The counter argument is that the Greco-Roman world practiced infanticide with some regularity, so a puppet king murdering all the boys under the age of two in a small town would not catch the attention of a general historian like Josephus.

We don't know how many boys were murdered. The story doesn't say. In a small town, how many infant boys under the age of two would there be? A dozen? A few dozen? Not that a low number lessens the horror of the situation.

If this event never happened, what would the writer be wanting to tell us with this story? If this is myth without factual basis, what should we look for? I'm not going to do a lot of exegesis here, but these things come to mind.

The Jews generally had a higher regard for the life of infants than the larger culture. Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind (or so the scholarly consensus goes), and so a basic message might have been that Herod, Hellenized Jew that he was, colluding with the Roman Empire to maintain his little bit of power as king of the Jews, was a terrible person, sinking so low as to practice infanticide like those Romans did. It may serve as a way to show the readers to what extent Herod had assimilated to the conquering culture.

There's also the Matthean concern that Jesus be seen as the new Moses, come to set his people free. Matthew is full of parallels with the Hebrew scriptures, and an escape into Egypt follows the pattern of Israelite history. The dream that come to Joseph, the father of Jesus, also parallels the dreams Joseph of the many colored coat had. 

Right off the bat, we see how dangerous Jesus is. This story is a bit of foreshadowing to the trouble Jesus would have with authorities, both secular and religious.

This is a very short episode in the Matthew gospel, so it's really about the accumulated effect of all these episodes that helps Matthew communicate to us who Jesus is---chosen of God, Anointed (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek).

But taking this episode on its own, we might think on a few things. Remember the people who are caught in the cross hairs of Empire machinations, particularly the children. We might take some time to reflect on how we assimilate to the ways of Empire to maintain our personal power. We might notice and take seriously the ways that just the appearance of Jesus on the scene threatens the status quo, the power systems. We might reflect on the ways we are threatened by Jesus.

That's what I've got for now.

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