Tuesday, December 27, 2016
The Consequences of Weakness - Christmas III 2016 The Holy Innocents
In case the Feast of Stephen wasn't enough to check the triumphalism of Christmas Day, the church gives the Third Day of Christmas to the Holy Innocents.
It's a terrible story, included only in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men, after consulting Herod, have just found Jesus (not in a manger but still in Bethlehem and apparently not quite two years old) and then they have a dream (dreams are Very Big for Matthew's Gospel) that warns them to avoid Herod on their way home. Herod, in his rage, orders all the male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. Joseph, however, has a dream that warns him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt before this can happen.
There's so much to unravel in this story, not the least of which being why all the parents of infants couldn't get a dream to get out of town? In higher criticism, we talk about how Matthew is concerned with giving symbols that a Jewish readership/listener would recognize. Hence all the references to the Prophets. (I contend, however, Matthew is sufficiently Hellenized to have conflated the Hebrew prophets with the Greek oracles, and the damage done follows us to this day. But I digress.)
I don't want to talk about all that this year. (So if you got bogged down in that last paragraph---don't worry about it.)
Anyone who has read any of my Christmas postings over the last few years know that I read the Gospel stories as political stories. They're not only political stories, but they definitely take place within a particular political situation, with men who exercised power absolutely. And here's what I want you to notice.
When people with power (absolute or not) feel threatened, they tend to do what they need to in order to keep their power and position. Powerful people seldom consistently do nice things for poor or weak (physically or politically) people. The weak are apt to become collateral damage in their efforts to maintain power (note every war ever waged).
And what's more, they don't care if you support them or not. They appreciate the support while they have it, but ultimately don't really need you when they have a larger agenda.
We don't really know how many infants were killed in this slaughter. There's no extra-canonical reference to it, so it's questioned if it really happened or if it was just a literary device for Matthew to reference Rachel and her children. I've read an article somewhere years ago that took into account the assumed population of the time and figured that if it happened, it was likely under 20 male infants in all of Bethlehem. So if it really happened, one theory goes, it wasn't a big enough slaughter to be recorded anywhere else. For the Empire, it was just another day at the office.
But assuming it did happen, are we to assume that all the families who lost infants were anti-Herod? Probably not. Surely some of those families liked Herod and his rule well enough, and if they'd had a chance to vote, whould have voted for him.
There's where I want to draw your attention. Even in my country, our democracy, it's never safe to assume that we're safe because we support the president in office. If they feel sufficiently threatened (or if they have a sufficiently fragile ego), they won't care if you voted for them or not. If they feel that a broad-based pogrom is justified, there will be no protection for anyone. There won't be time or bureaucracy enough to figure out which of the little people are worth protecting. They're after this one goal, and if it takes out all the infants in a town to achieve that goal, so be it.
Now, this isn't to cause paranoia or fear---it's just describing how things are. It's not even a call to exercise our (in the USA) Second Amendment Rights. Those rights won't mean anything if the full fury of Empire comes down on you.
It's to say that while most of us are weak, lacking in political power, we have a God who became flesh and lived among us----not among the powerful, among us, the weak. He resisted and saved a few people. He was crushed but he lived on in a community that, at it's best, continues to resist Empire.
Obviously, I'm not naming names this season. The names are less important than the patterns.
We often quote Paul and his assertion that in our weakness we are made strong. I actually do believe that. Nothing I wrote above is an argument against that.
As I ponder the consequences of Christmas, however, I simply state: Here are the consequences of being weak. It is our strength, yes, and the blood is still real.
A note about today's photo: This was an accidental photo taken last summer. I had my hand pressed against the lens and pointed at the sun when I accidentally hit the button to take a photo. This photo, therefore, is my flesh as seen through the sun. It seemed like a good photo for today.