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.
We begin to celebrate Trinity Sunday this evening, just shy of two weeks since the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of members of the Minneapolis police department. This murder (the latest in a string of fatalities of black men and women) has sparked anger and outrage, as well as suspicion of uniformed officers of the law, who have sworn to faithfully uphold their communities.[i] We have watched (and some have witnessed first-hand) the daily protests that have taken place across the country, some peaceful, and others turning violent, unable to contain the frustration of not being heard; all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has us reeling in isolation.
The civic unrest that we are experiencing in our country is not only the result of a Constitutional crisis symptomatic of racism, but even more so because the attempt to subdue, divide, or destroy community, which springs from the common good, goes against the very nature of the God whose image we bear. The founder of our Society Richard Meux Benson wrote: “By the communication of the Holy Spirit, the personal God is found dwelling in all the faithful, not as a Sovereign to overpower their individuality, but as a Giver of life and fullness, that our fallen emptiness may rise into true correspondence of Love with Him from whom it came.”[ii] The word community comes from the Latin communitas, which literally means “with oneness.” Community and communion are related to each other. The anger being expressed in our country over the death of George Floyd and countless other of our black sisters and brothers is a righteous anger. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the ground of our very being which is a creation of God. We should not be outraged at the anger of those who have taken to our streets in protest, but conversely, at the source of that anger. We should deeply mourn the sin of all who seek to destroy the very dwelling place of God in our midst. The inability or unwillingness to speak the truth of love to power is to be guilty of complacency. Silence in this case is not holy, but rather synonymous with death.[iii]
Zechariah 8:20-23 :: Psalm 87 :: Luke 9:51-56
This evening’s lections highlight for us a very important paradox about what we might call “the Religious world-view.” In our readings from the Hebrew Bible, both Zechariah and the Psalmist remind us that the beauty and goodness of religion have the power to bring people into a relationship with the Divine. Surely, this is true for just about every one of us here, whether we call ourselves religious or not. Both biblical authors imagine for us a context where the abundant beauty and goodness of God become so incarnated in the life and worship of God’s people that the people of the world will long for nothing more than to enter into that life.
Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ … In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’
Glorious things are spoken of you *
O city of our God.
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
Listen for a moment and think carefully about whether you have had an experience parallel to any of the following:
The experience of a social worker as she counsels an opioid addict struggling to extricate himself from a destructive network of peer relationships;
The experience of a teacher giving hours of help after class to a student with special learning needs or a toxic home environment, neither of which the school system seems concerned about;
The experience of a doctor or nurse spending the time necessary to really listen to a patient’s needs, whilst attempting to navigate a broken medical insurance system;
The experience of a psychologist working with a transgender prison inmate who is verbally and physically abused by fellow inmates and guards, but whose gender identity is unrecognized by the prison system.
Before I came to the monastery I worked for a number of years as a Parish Administrator at a large Episcopal Church in downtown Boston, situated on a bustling street filled with high-end fashion boutiques and office buildings. The church kept its doors open throughout the work day and served as a hub for all sorts of programming, from Twelve Step meetings to homeless ministries, lunches for the elderly and concert series. On any given day I could be found coordinating a harpsichord delivery, scheduling a repair for our broken elevator, or trying to assist a young woman who periodically slept on our front steps – often simultaneously.
Dennis was our custodian. He greeted me daily when I arrived at 7 am with a huge smile and would yell one of his nicknames for me: “Special K!” or “K Dog!” or often just “Brother!” Short, thin, and feisty, Dennis had lived a very hard life but had an indefatigable spirit of joy and a deep, inspiring love for Jesus. He sang hymns at the top of his lungs over the sound of his vacuum cleaner, and accurately understood his work as a ministry. Dennis lived his emotional life extremely close to the surface and was frequently overwhelmed by it. He often needed to visit my office on the third floor to vent his feelings.