Pleas from The Innocents

Sunday 29th December 2013
Year A, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 2:11-23

In the midst of our Lucan Christmas we are suddenly assaulted by Matthew. The straw in the manger has hardly gone cold before it is drenched in blood. While the shepherds are again abiding in their fields, no doubt endlessly recounting what took place on that wondrous night, they hear the sound of screaming coming from the streets down below as their wives are assaulted and their infant sons butchered.

Not a tranquil week, without the assaults of brutal reality. It is a story that has filled every annal since the beginning of time. No matter how much we dress up the military hero, no matter how much we like to charm ourselves into thinking about honour, chivalry, patriotism and camaraderie, the consequence is always the same; the massacre of the innocents. A year from now we will all be celebrating the 100th anniversary of that famous Christmas day football match in no-man's-land between the Germans and their allied opponents; but let us not forget how many people had already been killed on both sides between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and that famous kick-off.

Nothing has ever been the same in our collective psyche since the First World War; never have so many died not knowing what they were dying for. Until that time, professional armies and rag-bag recruits fought each other on behalf of dynasties and made up for lack of pay and pleasure with the excesses of conquest: rape, pillage and drunkenness; but between 1914 and 1918 millions of young men were pressed - goaded often, by their mothers and sisters with white feathers - and later conscripted to die in a war whose causes, even now, after 100 years, are still the source of bewilderment to historians.

On behalf of those young children who were butchered by King Herod for his own dynastic reasons I would like to make two pleas: the first is that we should use the occasion of 2014 to try to understand, or learn that we cannot understand, the forces that led Europe into its most bloody war of all time. We must not stand silent in the face of bland jingoism; we must not celebrate anything until we are entirely certain of what we are being asked to celebrate; to praise courage and to mourn the fallen is one thing, to give tacit or explicit support to the mindlessness of war is quite another.

The second plea, which is strongly connected with the first, is that we should not allow the casualties reckoned in tens of millions, to deaden our response to war. After the First World War came the Second; and, since then, we have lived through scores of wars, largely racial and tribal, but more notably the mass genocide prosecuted by Pol Pot in Cambodia. At the moment the on-going war in the whole of central Africa, from the Sahara Desert in the North to the River Congo in the South, from Sudan in the East, to the borders of Cameroon in the West, has become so brutal that it is beginning to attract international attention; much of the warfare is about natural resources but at its Northern margin there is now brutal fighting on religious lines between Christians and Muslims. But to sort out the whole region will take massive amounts of money. And in the Islamic world there is now a growing conflict between the Shiah and Sunni which shows every sign of getting out of hand.

If we are to take these two pleas seriously on this Feast of the Holy Family we have to remember three things: first, that all the people effected are in families, the raped, the maimed, the tortured and the slaughtered. Secondly, that we are immensely lucky to live where we live and that brings obligations with it, to be active in politics, to campaign for peace, and to pray for the perpetrators and the victims. And, thirdly, we must always remember that the peace we have is fragile and that what shatters peace is not the axe of the vandal but the door-closing and curtain drawing of the solid citizen.

By all means let us enjoy a time of peace and rest but we must also gird our intellectual loins: make an agenda; write a book list; summon up our social and intellectual courage; and, above all, resolve to pray for those who live in cruel lands; and for ourselves who need God's strength to challenge the world, and to challenge ourselves.