Sermon for Saturday, 29th December 2012
(Feast of the 14,000 Infant Martyrs)
The season of Christmas is a feast of light and joy. At Christmas we sang, "Your nativity, O Christ our God, has made the light of knowledge dawn on the world". Next week we shall be celebrating the feast of lights, and we shall sing, "Your light, O Lord, has been signed upon us". And yet today, in the middle of our joyful celebration of light, only a few days since the angelic proclamation, "peace on earth, good will among men", the Church compels us to come face to face with a terrible darkness. We are confronted with an event surrounding the Nativity that many would prefer to ignore, an event that is far from bright and joyful, an act that is without doubt the most evil act imaginable: infanticide. King Herod, being convinced of the biblical prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah in the Old Testament, fears for his rule. Like many of the Jewish people in his day, he wrongly believed that the promised King of the Jews would be an earthly ruler. In an attempt to extinguish the threat he perceives to his reign in the birth of Christ, the Messiah and King of the Jews, he orders the murder of all male children up to 2 years of age.
Many think of Christmas, of the Nativity of Christ, as something sweet and sentimental. But today's gospel reminds us that there is nothing sentimental about it. Instead we are shown the grim reality of evil, of the kind of violent world that Christ enters in the most vulnerable way imaginable - as a new born baby. In becoming one of us, in taking on human existence in everything but sin, He subjects Himself to human tragedy, to suffering and death. Already, from the moment of His birth, we see Christ offering Himself to the reality of our own pain and mortality, with no power, no authority, no means of defence.
But this gospel reading also poses a serious ethical and theological question. How could God allow such a terrible act of infanticide? How can we reconcile God becoming a child in profound humility out of love for us, with allowing so many other children to be put to death because of Him? It is an age-old question. If God loves us and is at the same time all-powerful, why does He allow such evil acts? This is not a question that can be easily answered in a simple sermon. But we should not forget that those murdered children are celebrated as martyrs in our church calendar. They are, in fact, the first martyrs of Christianity. We celebrate their feast day today, as we do every year, on 29th December. We are thus reminded that their death was not in vain, but was cause for an unfading crown of glory. Like all the saints we know and love, whose names we are familiar with and whom we celebrate every year, those children are rejoicing in heaven with God, praying for us.
Thus while the Church is compelling us to come face to face with darkness and evil, it reminds us at the same time that evil was not triumphant even in the death of so many innocents, not only because Christ Himself did not fall to the sword, but also because those infants who did were not lost, but given everlasting life. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the incredible pain of the families of those infants, and the Gospel does not allow us to forget them, for we heard it expressed with profound sorrow by the prophet Jeremiah in the gospel reading: "A voice was heard in Rama, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they were no more".
But in spite of this, the light of the world was not extinguished by the darkness. Many people speak of a war between good and evil. Unfortunately so do many of us Christians, but the reality of our faith is that there is no war. God is all powerful; the devil is powerless. We must never fear the power of evil more than we trust in the power and love of God. But often things don't seem or feel that way. And today's gospel is no exception. What do we see? A poor family, an innocent, defenceless child, against an army of trained soldiers, against a tyrannical, seemingly unstoppable empire of violence, wealth and power. And yet it is the poor family and the defenceless child that are victorious!
This is what the gospel is telling us today: no matter how much evil seems to get the upper hand, however hopeless things may seem, never lose faith, never cease to trust in God. For no matter how great the darkness seems to be, the light will always overcome the darkness, no matter how weak the light may seem. "All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle".
And is this not the message of today's gospel? "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it". Christmas has come and gone. But the light of the Nativity will shine forever.