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The Uncomfortable Truth of The Nativity

This morning was the final service of my 'Christmas Trio', having been called to support my good friend Reverend Bob Pounder at Oldham Unitarian Chapel. The readings used today were Matthew 2, split into two parts - 'Visitors from the East' and 'Escape to Egypt'. 

We also looked at drone footage from war-torn Damascus and flood-hit northern England, which triggered some good contributions from our younger members about how we are often aware on the one hand that it's happening, but oblivious on the other in terms of the scale of destruction.

At my local Methodist church, which I now attend in-between my trips to Oldham, the minister on Christmas Day morning encouraged the congregation to 'Discover a little more this Christmas' (borrowing a slogan from the Co-op's Christmas ad campaign). This is something I have found myself doing this Christmas, having been given the privilege of preaching at Oldham Unitarian Chapel.

For now, the day job beckons once again and I hope to take the real spirit of Christmas with me in my actions, following the example of Jesus.

The Wise Men and Herod, James Tissot (1899)


Today, many churches across the country will be telling the story of the wise men or Magi. It is a story we heard today from the Gospel of Matthew. 

It is a story rich in symbolism, and rich in hope – a magical story of stargazers in a foreign land who are given a sign, and from there, travel hundreds of miles to pay homage to a little baby in a manger, a baby predicted to grow into a hero. 

Yet, within this famous story, there is also some troubling detail.

According to Matthew, when the Magi came looking for the Christ-child, they first visited Herod the Great to ask if he knew where the baby was. On hearing the Magi ask for 'He that is born King of the Jews', Herod, the Roman client king in Judea - feeling that his throne was in jeopardy - asked the Magi to find his whereabouts and return to tell him, so that he could also pay homage to him. But of course he really intended to assassinate the baby Jesus as soon as possible. 

In dreams, God warned the Magi of Herod's true intentions, so they returned home by a different route and kept secret the location of Jesus. When Herod discovered this he ordered the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under.  Fortunately, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph, Mary and their young son had fled to Egypt after they too had been warned in a dream. 

Now this horrific event happened in ancient Bethlehem, which at the time was a small village, and it probably meant that around twenty children were killed, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas. 

It has to be acknowledged that this event, known as the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’, is not recorded in secular history sources. Nor is it mentioned in other gospels – significantly, it is not mentioned in the Gospel of the Luke which in trying to bring the story of Jesus to poor gentiles, to non-Jews, perhaps sought to downplay Jesus’s roots in Jewish nobility. 

But, having said this, we shouldn’t doubt too much that Herod’s foot soldiers were capable of visiting a backwater town and committing mass murder without too much spotlight.

At this time of year, we perhaps don’t want to hear this side of the Nativity - this tale of Old Testament prophecy and bloodletting. Indeed, it has been a habit amongst liberal Christians such as Unitarians – freed as we are to make sense of the Bible how we see fit – to bluntly edit out the more uncomfortable bits. But maybe - standing at this point in the season – we need to face up to this darker side of the Christmas story.

The 'Slaughter of the Innocents', like so many incidents in the Bible, highlights that in some ways our world – with all its undoubted splendour and wonder – contains a perpetuating, frightening level of brokenness. And most if not all of this brokenness has root in humankind – as a free, conscious species with the capacity for destruction as much as creativity.

Herod was faced with a choice to pay homage to Jesus or reject him. He chose to reject Jesus and in turn ordered the killing of the children of Bethlehem, intending for Jesus to be amongst the forgotten dead. We tend to look upon Herod as a cartoon super-villain - but maybe the choice he made was not such a simple choice, maybe it was one riven with deliberation. In deciding to do what he did, Herod may well have convinced himself he was protecting the state from a potential usurper. He may well have convinced himself he was protecting the nation from bloody Roman intervention should the baby born of David’s line trigger a grassroots rebellion. But this was also to do with Herod personally and spiritually - to do with his ego, to do with wanting to hold on to his personal power, status and privilege.

What is stark is that there is ultimately nothing redeeming in the story of Herod. Herod is certainly not redeemed. He had a choice, to pay homage to Jesus alongside the Magi – to bring him his gifts – or to keep his gifts to himself. He chose the latter and it led to the worst kind of destruction – the destruction of children.

Some Christians do indeed try to redeem the event as a whole by declaring the children of Bethlehem to be the first martyrs of Christ - commemorating them with the Feast of the Holy Innocents. But these young Jewish boys didn’t choose to bravely die for Jesus like other Christian martyrs; their deaths were entirely forced on them and they would have been completely unaware of the greater cause. Nor did God come to save them, as he had saved Jesus and his family through Joseph’s dreams. 

So it is no wonder we find it discomforting and naturally leave it out of Christmas. Yet perhaps, as we stand at the end of the Christmas period’s festivities, we can include it now as a timely and fitting reorientation to the core business of Christianity? Because ultimately, the 'Slaughter of the Innocents' strips away all the tinsel from the Christmas story and places the child Jesus squarely in a world which contains chaos and carnage. 

And this was precisely the world Jesus acted in reaction to – setting out God's agenda for a loving, self-giving way of living. The word joy is often displayed at Christmas - perhaps this is out of habit but within it there is also good reason. Jesus saw the potential for joy in the world and wanted to bring people into the joy of living - particularly the most downtrodden of people. Not just the poor, but the hard-hearted, cynical rich. This is what he meant about becoming like little children. And because of this, at just 33 years old, he was killed by people worried about his challenge to their hierarchy and privilege.

As we look at the world, at the close of 2015 and start of 2016, I’m sure we can see parallels with Bethlehem, with the Magi, and with Herod. The story is real, it is reality.

With Bethlehem’s slaughter, I’m sure our thoughts will turn quickly to Iraq and Syria, to the helpless dressed in orange, knife pressed against their necks, to the lines of refugees seeking to escape. And whilst I am not trying to create an equivalency, I also put it to you, if we look more closely to home to the flood-stricken towns of northern England – to the families most likely facing the true cost of our carbon consumption - might we also see something of Bethlehem’s weeping?

It’s probably more comforting to view ourselves, particularly as Unitarians, as Magi-like people – as seekers, as pilgrims - but maybe we are also Herod-like people? After all, if we are honest, we too have a capacity to be rejecters and destroyers, to selfishly try to protect what we have. And perhaps not deliberately, but at least carelessly, perhaps we too might be taking part in a slaughter of innocents?

You might not want to do this right now, and I certainly find it uncomfortable, but let us think about all we have consumed this Christmas – the wide variety of food shipped from across the world, the luxury gifts made in anonymous foreign factories, the oil burned to keep our Christmas ornaments sparkling – can we really disinherit Herod as someone over there, whilst we stand over here? And if we do want to disinherit ourselves, how can we do it? Cars, supermarkets, energy supplies – we are all hooked in and it’s clear there are no easy, straightforward ways out. It’s complicated.

But I put it to you today, that following Jesus is a way of helping us navigate this complex, beautiful yet brutal world. Looking to his teachings and example, using the gifts we have for the cause to which he used his gifts, might mean that we are lifted up as our journey continues on into 2016 – lifted up from merely consuming, to being people who do genuinely put something back, to being people who genuinely bring light to the darkness.

At Oldham we see this already in the collective work that is being done with the most vulnerable. It is inspiring to know that on Christmas Day the chapel was open, giving food and warmth to the vulnerable. But this also requires a personal sense of responsibility, a personal commitment to giving to the cause. 

And it is not just a practical endeavour – the object of the journey is surely also spiritual – to kindle the Christ-light within us, to become as 'little children' and thus to achieve greater unity with God. So it requires not just money and material offerings, not just time and energy, but our mind and hearts.

As we look ahead to this New Year, let us recommit ourselves to living life with Jesus at our side – let our biggest resolution be to help make the world a better place for the Holy Innocents who will come into it.


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