This Christmas there will be many parts of the biblical Christmas story shared and remembered. Church sermons will reflect on Mary being told that she’s to bear the Messiah. School pageants will recall the visitation of the angel to the shepherds at Jesus birth. Nativity scenes will depict the attendance of the three wise men. One event though will probably not be getting a lot of airplay. It occurs after the birth although it is predictable beforehand. It is a huge downer and certainly not child friendly. It has traditionally been called “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
In the Gospel of Mathew, Herod, the king of the Jews, hears from the wise men of the star in the sky they are following. Such a star they tell him heralds the coming of a great king. Herod asks them to return and tell him where they find this future king so he can pay homage too. However an angel warns the wise men that Herods’ real plan is to kill his rival so they should go back to their homes another way. When Herod realises he won’t be able to locate the specific child he wants to destroy he has all male children under the age of two from around Bethlehem killed. Joseph is warned by an angel and Jesus escapes.
Herods’ killing of the male children is “The Massacre of the Innocents”. In the medieval era this was a significant event in the church calender. These children were considered the first Christian martyrs and in some traditions their numbers were estimated as far more than 100,000. Contemporary historians don’t all agree that The Massacre of the Innocents actually happened. There are many symbolic reasons why it might have been included in Mathews Gospel instead. Those who believe it happened now suppose its victims number closer to dozens than thousands. However there is no dispute that this event actually fits into the range of viable actions for government in the first century. Specifically no-one believes it’s out of character for Herod. In the first century Middle East these sorts of things happened.
Jesus grows up to deliver his message to this world of terrible violence. His primary audience are a Jewish people under the antagonising rule of Rome. Even if the Massacre of the Innocents is not true Jesus spoke to people who had lost family to the whims of a government intent on breaking their spirit. Jerusalem was a trouble spot for the Romans and administrators who brought peace by any bloody means could hope to be promoted out of there. To complete the insult there was never any chance for official justice against a roman soldier who had killed a member your family. You could join a resistance movement which had no real chance of success or you could redirect your rage towards elements of your own community or yourself.
There are parts of our world today that bear a terrible resemblance to first century Jerusalem. In fact Palestinian areas around Israel are one. Israeli missiles and tanks have led to many massacred children. The response as in Jesus’ time has been ineffectual revolutions epitomised by rocks thrown at tanks but also tragically by bombs on school buses and in cafes. More children die.
My own life however is nothing like this and I’ve been pondering lately how this means I am apt to miss the point of Christianity. When I translate something like the Sermon on the Mount to my own life I don’t have very real enemies to love. Does Jesus mean the guy hooning down my street at two am? If so I think I can overcome my hate fairly easily. It’s not like I was going to kill them anyway. I’ll just think of their troubled youth and fragile ego issues and feel a sort of benevolent pity for them. Instead of shouting out words of hate and waking up my partner to boot or holding on to a malevolent disdain through the next day I’ll just let it go with nice thoughts. Wow, this Christianity is actually kinda good for me. It’s like a positive mood reinforcer.
What this means however is when something genuinely terrible happens Christianity of the “don’t sweat the small stuff” variety just doesn’t seem to apply. If Christianity is about just feeling nicely disposed towards people who play loud music on the bus then it’s insulting to suggest it speaks to rape victims for example. If Christianity is about just not holding on to mean thoughts then trying to paint it over a conflict such as the Israel -Palestinian one is ludicrous.
That’s why I think we should remember the massacre of the innocents – not necessarily because it actually happened as depicted – but because it gives us a measure of the depth of pain Jesus directly spoke to. Imagine having your child killed by the government and then hearing a survivor of their generation talk about “turning the other cheek.” I think I would want to crucify him.
This also sheds some light on the hostility Jesus copped from the Pharisees of his time. The Pharisees have become a kind of Christian joke. They stand against what has been reinterpreted as a plea for us to have a general warm regard towards others. Of course this makes them look foolish as well as petty and bitter unlike the balanced healthy-outlook Jesus. The Pharisees are people who seem to be pathologically attached to judging and hating. Until we remember the massacre of the innocents.
As I wrote in my post “The Prodigal God” when Jesus embraced sinners he was embracing collaborators with the Romans amongst others. This is akin to Palestinians embracing collaborators with a modern Israel or Irish Catholics embracing collaborators with Protestant rule in the mid twentieth century. It’s an insane idea, it’s insulting and its first century Christianity. By comparison the Pharisees are the balanced ones.
This Christmas many of us will be rushing around, dodging new p-plate drivers and frantic shoppers. Some of us will be sitting in nursing homes getting our Christmas presents stolen by the patient down the hall. Others of us will have to negotiate access and custody over our children with people we can’t stand. Some of us might just be seated next to a grumpy relative for lunch. Some of us may even get our house robbed. Maybe we will use the Christmas spirit to help us take these small and not so small sufferings a little better. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Still I think we should remember the Massacre of the Innocents and be aware that many of us in safe countries only taste a small bitter sip of what love your enemy originally meant. If we don’t be so mindful we risk missing how marvellously outrageously insane Jesus was in his time. Even as a non-Christian I think that would be a shame.