Christmas 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st January

Hebrews 2.10-18; Matthew 2.13-23

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Today we move from the joyful acclamation of Christmas Day, toward something much darker – a portent perhaps of the life that this Christ child will be called into. A life lived in the midst of dark forces, the abuse of power, and fear. But rather than try and rationalise the irrational, smooth over the tragedy of infant genocide that today’s Gospel describes; instead of trying to make sense of unimaginable loss, I want to offer you a reflection I wrote many years ago – when I was curate here in this Cathedral, on a similar Sunday after Christmas; a small attempt to imagine things from the perspective of Rachel, weeping for her children, and to gesture at what Matthew is doing in placing this heartbreaking narrative right in the middle of the nativity.

And Rachel said:
They came in the night. Preceded by cries of anguish from next door, and from further away, it was still impossible to escape – or hide him, hide my child, my son. They’d done their homework – spies had done their job – they knew the score, where everything and everybody was, knew I’d got a boy, a baby – my son. And they were everywhere – there was no running, no fleeing. Of course I hid him – behind the stone jars in the kitchen – hurriedly wrapped in swaddling clothes, to keep him warm. But it was no use – he cried. In his innocence, in his need, he cried. The soldiers froze, stopped their searching. He cried, and the game was up, the quarry found. I was there first of course, wrapping myself around him, holding him close, pleading with the soldiers – what had he done, what had he done?

“Sorry miss,  but it’s orders, from Herod.” That’s all they would say at first – as if that explained everything – orders, orders from King Herod. But my son, my son? How can a defenceless, vulnerable child threaten a King? “Danger to security, miss. We’ve had reports, rumours of a usurper – potential rival claim to the throne. Doesn’t do, miss – upsets everything in the long run – leads to anarchy, no order, no stability. Before you know it he’s raised an army of disaffected people and he’s storming Jerusalem, setting himself up as a rival, and then you’ve got civil war. We’ve seen it all before. Better by far to nip it in the bud. It’s orders miss – King Herod, he knows best. We are sorry it’s your boy, truly, but take our word for it, there is no alternative.”

I wasn’t budging, but what could I do against armed soldiers? And so cursing them, incoherent with rage and grief, I was dragged out into the night and darkness enveloped me. Dragged out to join a chorus of lamentation. And my son became no more. And I shall never forget him.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

I have joined the ranks of grieving mothers, a victim of history written by others, by kings, and emperors. We don’t get to make history, to say what should happen, to demand life, life in all its fullness, for our children. We just suffer at the hands of others, at the hands of their preoccupation with power, and status, and wealth. “It’s orders, miss, orders from above.” And my son is no more. It’s a long, bloody, roll call – this history of the powerful, and the power hungry.

“We’ve had reports, rumours of a usurper.” Well, I heard them too – tales that buzzed round the town about strange foreign magi, astrologers of some sort, coming here to acclaim God’s messiah, to greet the expected one. And some of the other women, well they’re already saying it’s like when Moses was born – Pharaoh slaughtering children to keep his power, to put a stop to the one who will end oppression and injustice, free the people. That’s what some of them reckon, but I don’t know, is that simply clutching after straws in our grief? I don’t want to be some bit part in God’s eternal plan to save the world. The weak and helpless are always shoved to one side in the machinations of the powerful. After all, Moses only freed the people after the first born of the Egyptians were themselves killed. Why can’t God listen to our cry, the cry of the grief-stricken? I’ve got more in common with those Egyptian mothers, than with those who believe it can all turn out right, that God’s on our side, that Herod, and the Romans and all the others will get their just deserts at the hands of God, or his Messiah. Because my son is dead, and nothing is going to bring him back, and I have had enough of killing.

You see, there’s some who reckon God’s in charge – that this history of the powerful will finally be overthrown by the Most Powerful, the omnipotent God or his Messiah. But when you see history like I do, from the underside, with your dead child in your arms, that story rings a little hollow. As I said, I feel for those Egyptian mothers, cradling their murdered sons. Call it the work of God if you like, but count me out, because if that’s God, he looks a lot like Herod.

I hope he got away, the one the magi came to see. I heard his dad knew someone in Egypt and they left before the soldiers arrived. I hope they did – some of us weren’t that lucky – but maybe he got away. And maybe he will come back to lead us to freedom, into God’s promised land. It’s just that I don’t know what that means anymore. Leastwise I only know that it doesn’t usually include the likes of me, those who endure history rather than write it, the forgotten and the unloved. It’s not that I’ve got nothing to say, it’s just that the fighters for freedom I know are more interested in the power of fist and weapon than in the power of tears, the solidarity of grief, and the yearning heart. From the bottom of my heart, I cry “no more”. I have no desire for revenge. I long simply for the killing and the waste and the brutality to stop. That is my son’s gift to me: an unquenchable longing for peace. If the Messiah knew that longing, if he proclaimed and brought in that peace, then I would follow him to the ends of the earth. But how could that be? Such a one would stand silent before those who wield power. Could such a one free us? Not while God remains in charge, enthroned on high. Perhaps if God, like a grieving mother, knew the anguish of holding a dying son in her arms, then maybe the rich and the powerful would not have the final word. For if God endures such grief, then maybe God knows that what is finally important is that my son cannot, will not, must not be lost forever, but be held by God, in God. If God knows the depths of separation and grief then maybe God knows that it is this that must be redeemed.

At times, in silence, I glimpse another way, I know something of the God beyond power and status, who holds all time and all things in being, not just the Herods of this world. In silence I receive the gift left to me by my dead son: that longing for peace. In silence before a now vulnerable God I find the strength, from the wellspring of grief, not revenge, to better accuse those who have murdered my son, and demand God’s peace for all. But the way is hard and lonely; I need companions for the journey. It is all so elusive; the only concrete fact the body of my son, who is no more.

They came in the night … And my grief feels bottomless and inconsolable. Oh God, hear my cry.