Where do you find yourself in the Christmas story? Perhaps you find yourself with the shepherds from Luke’s account, coming from work to worship. Maybe you find yourself with the Magi, making a long and difficult journey — whether physical, emotional or spiritual — to celebrate the birth of the new King. Perhaps you identify with Mary or Joseph, marvelling at the wonder of new life. Or maybe you don’t fit any of these patterns. Maybe you don’t identify with the story at all or maybe you find yourself alongside somebody in the margins of the narrative, somebody whose presence or involvement is no more than implied.
For several years, that last option was the case for me. It was most acutely the case in the year that our son died. That was the year I found today’s Gospel reading — specifically the middle section, the massacre of the innocents — the only part of the Christmas story that I, as a bereaved parent, could relate to.
It’s not an easy text, today’s Gospel, and not an easy part of the story in which to locate yourself. It has the Magi, but they are off stage by this point, avoiding and hoodwinking Herod rather than hobnobbing with him. It has angels but, instead of lighting up the midnight sky with songs of joy, they’re whispering urgent warnings in the darkness of dreams. It has the baby, but instead of ‘sleeping in heavenly peace’, he’s wrapped up to keep his cries muffled as the family steals out the village to escape the looming threat.
It’s more like something we’d look for in the plot of a TV thriller than what we expect of a text for worship. But importantly, amid our 12 days of celebration, it reminds us what our faith is all about.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the sentimentality that surrounds Christmas. Some of the ways we celebrate it tend to push us in that direction. That’s a danger with crib scenes, for instance. All those adoring faces directed towards the plump and perfectly clean Christ child. ‘No crying he makes’ indeed. No dirty nappy either, you could almost be led to believe.
All that joy, all those happy faces, all that sheer familial perfection can be hard to stomach — if you’re grieving, if you’re on your own or if your family is a place of struggle rather than rest.
But for all that our own crib scene is in that traditional mould, it also sits almost directly under a representation of Jesus dying on the Cross, reminding us that, instead of being far removed from the muck and the mess, the pain and the horror, the God we’re here to worship is right here in it, right there paying for it.
The massacre of the innocents does the same. It plunges the Holy Family — this unsuspecting, unassuming young Jewish couple and their new baby — into the intrigue and violence of politics and power. It places the newborn Jesus right in the middle of the mess, making him utterly dependent on the wits and alertness of his parents to save him from the violence of the rich and powerful.
This child, this little baby or toddler, too young to understand anything that’s going on, aware enough to sense and share the fear of his parents, alert enough to hear the screams and sobs in the village behind him — this is the Word made flesh, the Christ incarnate, God with us. Although this Word made everything that is, he is not God come in power and might, but God made vulnerable, fearful, traumatised flesh. He is God with us in the mess of our own making.
The mess we hear of in the Gospel is born of fear. Herod wants desperately, obsessively to cling to power and is terrified that this new baby will usurp him. If our gradual hymn is uncomfortably cheery about the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, it certainly gets the motivation of the culprit right.
The violence of the rich and powerful is born largely of such fear and it still besets the world. It is born of fear and stirs up fear. As we look back over the past year and decade, it’s uncomfortable but necessary to ask how much of what has happened in politics has been a product of fear. Fear of the other, the refugee, the immigrant. Fear of not being in control. Fear of not having enough. Fear of losing what we have or, maybe more to the point, what we think we have.
Fear creates victims, victims like the families in Bethlehem in the margins of the Gospel. Families among whom we must assume would have been relatives of Joseph. Mothers and fathers bereaved in the most horrific of circumstances.
Those fathers and mothers are the ones I identified with and still identify with. For all that the circumstances of my own son’s death were completely different and entirely natural, the presence of bereaved parents in the shadows of the text helped me to find a way back into the story when the focus on the central characters locked me out.
But if I identify with the victims, I must ask myself too whether there is any way that I resemble the villain, whether there is anything of Herod with which I can and should identify. Is there in me any fear that leads to my doing violence to others? Do I cause any emotional hurt through the way I think about or speak to others? Do I cause pain or suffering through the impact of the political and economic choices I make?
Christ, the little terrified bundle of today’s reading, came to free us from fear. He became vulnerable not so that we could be invincible, but so that we could be free to be vulnerable without terror of the consequences. For to love and be loved is to be vulnerable in the deepest places and the most profound ways. We see that in the manger, we see it in the Cross and we meet it every Sunday in the bread and in the wine.