Feast of the Holy Innocents
King Herod was scared of a baby. King Herod was so scared of a baby, that he ordered the massacre of every child under the age of two in Bethlehem just to try to kill that one baby. Thanks be to God, baby Jesus escaped the wrath of Herod. Today, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we remember all those babies who did not escape the wrath of Herod. All those babies who were killed due to one man’s fear.
The slaughter of babies is not a pleasant subject, especially during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Christian church has been observing the feast of the Holy Innocents for over fifteen hundred years. That’s a long time. Clearly something important is going on here. Some lesson that needs to be relearned yearly, again and again over the course of centuries.
Consider what parts of the story are timeless. What is just as true now as it was then? Certainly the evil ordered by Herod to slaughter babies is timeless. It is just as evil to us now as it was then. It was an evil fueled by fear, anger, and power. Three poisons with timeless potency.
Jesus heals. Jesus heals so often, so many, and so much, that it is easy to forget about. If you stick your finger in a random page in the Gospel, chances are your finger is close to healing.
Our Gospel today features yet another situation where someone asks Jesus what he is all about. This particular day it is followers of John the Baptist asking Jesus if he is the real deal. Jesus’ answer is both vague and blunt. He tells the men to go back to John the Baptist and literally just say what they saw and heard going on around Jesus.
So what was going on around Jesus? Well, tons of healing. We are told by Luke that Jesus had just healed many people right before this conversation happened. Can you imagine those followers of John the Baptist going back and explaining themselves to John? They would have to say something like well John, this Jesus guy wouldn’t give us a straight answer, but man he’s healing a ton of people so he must be doing something right.
We all know the feeling of waiting for that one guy who is always late. That feeling of quiet anger rising as the whole room waits for him to arrive so that the meeting can start. You try to be patient, you try some small talk, but soon the frustrating thoughts creep in… he always does this, God is he clueless, someone should say something to him. The moments drag by…then finally the tardy man arrives two minutes late, holding tea and toast.
St. Paul encourages us tonight to regard others as better than ourselves. Now please keep in mind St. Paul didn’t write these words on his honeymoon. He wrote these words in jail, locked up because he was a Christian. So even in chains he asks us to consider others as better than ourselves…that includes Mr. Tea and Toast.
Why would St. Paul write such a thing? Why not write something like follow the spirit of Christ and always arrive five minutes early so no has to wait for you? The genius of St. Paul was his vision for the long haul. He knew that having the patience to regard others as more important is a short term pain for a long term gain. In other words, patience is a good strategy.
So when’s the last time you were in a crowd of seventy people? It’s probably been a while, maybe eight months or so. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of seventy disciples in today’s Gospel. Seventy people is not a huge crowd, it’s about half the capacity of our chapel, but it’s no small get together either. These disciples were early Christians ready to go out on mission ahead of Christ to prepare his way. These disciples were not a casual crew, they were ready to die for the cause, and some of them would. Starting a speech to such a crowd demands a solid opening line.
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” In other words, roll up your sleeves and get ready to work. Jesus knew he was short staffed and the work was going to pile up. There was no time for self-pity. There was no room for laziness. This was going to be tough work.
Jesus does not sugarcoat his words in today’s Gospel. He tells us that the road we have to walk is hard. There is no way around it. Life will not always be easy. Such brutal honesty from Jesus may seem jarring, but he is preparing his disciples for the long journey ahead of them in which they certainly face hard times.
When I was a senior in college, I went to bed one night with a slight pain in my left leg. I thought I was just sore from exercising. I woke up the next morning and my leg had swollen to the point that I could barely walk. Soon after I started sweating and shivering uncontrollably.
The first doctor I saw in the hospital walked into my room holding the biggest syringe I had ever seen. The syringe looked like a water bottle with a comically oversized needle on one end and a plunger on the other. He explained that he had to drain my leg immediately and there was no time for anesthesia. Then he looked me in the eye and told me that this was going to be painful.
My memories of that week in the hospital are a blur now, but I still remember the tone of voice the doctor used as he lovingly did not sugarcoat telling me what pain I was about to feel. Jesus has the same love for us disciples when he tells us that the road we will walk in his name will be hard. The straight and narrow path will never be pain free.
Everyone knows what it is like being the new guy. Few people know what it is like being the new guy in a Monastery. Even fewer people know what it is like being the new guy in a Monastery that is “Renewing Our Foundations.” Let me tell you what it is like.
If you have ever dined with us Brothers in our refectory, you will have seen our water pitchers. We place two full water pitchers on each table at every meal. Obviously these water pitchers do not just fill themselves up. A Brother has do that, and one of my first days as a Postulant here at SSJE, I was that Brother.
I was nervous. How much water do I put in? How much ice? Which faucet do I use? Do I turn the faucet on full blast or would that be too loud? The questions swirled through my head as the water filled up the pitcher in my hand. I thought I had nailed it. The water looked good in that pitcher, and I was proud of myself.
“Try to fill it a little higher, that way we don’t run out of water during the meal.” I did not even hear the Brother come up behind me. He took the water pitcher from me and showed me with his finger where a good spot to fill it to was. He then turned the faucet back on and filled up the pitcher a little more, smiled and walked away.
I grabbed another empty pitcher. Round two. Time for redemption. I eyeballed the spot where my Brother had pointed. I carefully watched the water fill up and gently turned off the faucet. I smiled. I got it right. I was sure.
“Try not to fill it so high, it might spill when a guest is pouring it.” A different Brother was over my shoulder this time. He poured out a little water from the pitcher and walked away. Welcome to community living.
A few weeks later I was told we would be pausing our guest ministry at Emery House and all the Brothers would be living in Cambridge. My first thought was. “Oh good, more Brothers here, less work for me.” My next thought was “how on earth do you renew foundations?”
Renewing foundations, for me, ended up being a lot like filling those water pitchers. I listened, I watched, I tried to help out when I could, but above all else I learned. Most importantly, I learned the value of endurance. The via media of our way of life is both fruitful and agonizing; it requires endurance to abide in Christ in community. Mistakes are going to be made, miscommunication is going to happen, and opinions will always differ, but we always manage to get the water to the table and share a nice meal.