The Innocents’ Day


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December 28th 

Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…
For the Epistle
Revelation 14:1-5
Matthew 2:13-18

This is the fourth day of the Octave of Christmas but the first time we have read a Christmas narrative. It begins after the wise men have first met Herod, visited Jesus and then left him, going home without re-visiting Herod. In Matthew the angel appears to Joseph (cf Luke 1:26 where the angel appears to Mary) and warns him of the danger from Herod. Typical of Matthew, the place of exile is determined by a cryptic and obscure prophetic citation; there are literally scores of prophetic pronouncements about Egypt. The Holy Family remains there until Herod’s death, some two years later. Meanwhile, Herod, in a direct echo of the fate of the Egyptian first males in Exodus 11, causes all boys, not just the first born, under the age of two to be killed in fulfilment of an obscure saying of Jeremiah.

The events themselves are highly unlikely: first, although the recorded life of Herod shows him perfectly capable of such a cruel deed, his arbitrary powers did not stretch anywhere near that far and such a massacre would have been recorded and long resented; secondly, the doings of an artisan family, even reported to Herod by visitors, would hardly have triggered a reaction much more fierce than that which met occasional Messianic uprisings; and thirdly, that obscurity would have made exile unnecessary.

We therefore need to look at Matthew’s theological purpose in constructing his narrative and the place to start is his genealogy at the beginning of Chapter 1 which draws a stylised line from Abraham to Joseph (whereas Luke’s stylised line begins with Adam and casts doubt on Joseph’s parenthood). First, Matthew wants to establish a very direct link between the birth of Jesus and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt and so he invokes memories of Exodus and he takes Jesus to Egypt so that He may return from it to Israel; secondly, he wants to contrast the sordid and tyrannous nature of earthly kingship with the love and glory of the divine kingship of Jesus; and, thirdly, he wants to reinforce the sacred genealogy of Jesus by citing Rachel, possibly the most winning woman in the whole of Genesis and the mother of Joseph who, again, has strong connections with Egypt. It is best in these circumstances not to be too concerned with the historicity of the narrative but to read the whole passage with its mass of internal, possibly sub conscious, cross references, as an intricate piece of Christological poetry. It tells us about our liberation from the tyranny of Egypt and, by extension from the tyranny of sin; it warns of bloodshed which will descend upon the faithful arbitrarily (as it was doing when Matthew wrote); it speaks of exile, experienced by the Jews, Jesus and many of Matthew’s contemporaries after the dispersion of the Christian Church, as well as the Jewish Temple cult from Jerusalem in 70 AD; and it offers a schematic and intricate link between the two Testaments.

This broad interpretation of Matthew explains the apparently eccentric choice of the passage of Revelation for the Epistle. The Lamb, who is Christ, is being followed “Whithersoever He goest” (including into exile) by the 144,000, clearly a reference to the patriarchs and prophets of old. A new song is sung before the Lamb and also, in an echo of Daniel, before the elders and the four beasts. What spoils this exotic tableau is the reference to the saved as virgins “not defiled by women”, a decidedly odd approbation on a feast to celebrate infants.

As for those infants, the Collect somewhat muddies the waters by saying that infants glorify God by their deaths when the reference in Psalm 8:2 clearly states that mouths of babes and sucklings praise the Lord because he has seen off the enemy which is certainly not the case in Matthew. It then goes on to use the word “innocence” to mean penitent, as opposed to not yet capable of responsibility.

Nonetheless, in spite of the textual eccentricities, the central message is clear but Matthew’s story is only a pretext; the Innocents are simply a narrative device for one of Matthew’s many discussions of kingship. Christ, the Lamb, is contrasted with Herod the infanticidist and his rich and glorifying heavenly kingdom is contrasted with the den of paranoia which Herod inhabited. In the mouths of the elders in Revelation there is no guile but Herod says one thing and does another.

Another theme which has recently come into prominence because of our contemporary condition is the thought of Jesus and his earthly parents as an exile. For the Jews, Egypt was as bad as it got. The whole of the Old Testament is a dialogue between God and His Chosen People mirrored in the internal dynamics of their faithfulness and unfaithfulness and in the external contrast between their faithfulness and the idolatry of Egypt. In considering the contrast between host and guest we are perhaps too apt to notice how different exiles are from us instead of imagining how different we are from them. We, after all, no matter how jaundiced, view them from the comfort of our own cultural background whereas they view us from a standpoint of bewilderment and loss; we resent them but the resent their exile. This is but one example how changing circumstances enables us to find different lessons in our sacred texts.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Compare the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, note the differences and explain what they might mean.
  2. Has our attitude to the children of untimely death changed because of the recent Papal ‘abolition’ of Limbo?
  3. Explore the contemporary records of the life of Herod and compare it with Gospel accounts.
  4. Does Revelation stretch the metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb of God too far?
  5. How should the exile of Jesus inform our attitude to exiles?

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