Thoughts from a Homily for Holy Communion on
The Sunday after Christmas, being also Holy Innocents Day
28th of December, 2014, 9 a.m.
for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford
Holy Innocence & Telling the Truth
+May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, Amen.
Lately, I seem to have become unaccountably incompetent at reading lectionaries. “December the 28th – Holy Innocents”, I thought, on reading the e-mail message from the Prioress, a happy date for me as it was the birthday of my late godmother and Great-Auntie Marie (she was my father’s godmother, too). Then, mindful of what happened last time, I thought, “no, best check whether they are actually keeping it”. First Sunday after Christmas. Rats. But then I had a look in my Revised Common Lectionary (admittedly, late at night, and in the dark, and saw, to my delight that the Gospel reading was nonetheless exactly as it would have been for Holy Innocents – the horrible story of Herod’s slaughter of the boy children of Bethlehem. Alas, that was for Year A. We are in Year B. Christmas II is common to years A, B, & C, but not Christmas I. I feel most short-changed by all this. So what I propose to say is a little of what I have prepared, and whatever takes us all by surprise as we go along.
Normally I come here on a weekday, and it took me the whole of the walk down from Barton to realise what felt so different about the journey today. No children. Between here and there, are several thousand schools, with several million children, who in term-time are swarming across the pavements, and into the roads, like noisy, slow-moving, cluttering, ants. They always sound very jolly though, as if they are looking forward to going to school. I’m sure I never did. Perhaps it has improved since my day. That is a dangerously un-curmudgeonly thought.
But today, it was quiet, and instead we heard the sound of the birds, robins and sparrows and the rest, and wrens in particular. I think wrens must dislike children, as they were in abundance this morning, in every garden bush and hedgerow. The quiet also made me think of a sad thing – but one inspired by the reading we should have had this morning – “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel, weeping for her children”. The sad thing was that both my grandmother and my great-grandmother lost their first children, before they had any others, and although neither of them even said this to me – and I knew them both – I have for long years thought of what it must have been like to come home to a silent house, which had until just lately been filled with the noisiness of a new baby. They went on to have more children – in my great-grannie’s case, eleven more, of whom three are still up and doing today – the eldest is 93, the next will, God willing be 90 next summer, and the baby of the family is 88. In both generations, they were spared the awfulness of losing a second child in their own lifetimes. So, for these different family reasons, the feast of the Holy Innocents was something to think about.
Where’s the holiness? One thing I am sure of is that it is not in the suffering. The story we tell on this day is one - whether literally, historically, true or not – of monstrous unholiness. To cause suffering to anyone at all, but especially to a child, can only be an evil sin crying out to heaven for vengeance and to all of us for justice. Some Christians struggle with this, having been caught up in a kind of spiritual sado-masochism, in which virtue is to be found in pain. It finds its secular counterpart – perhaps you have friends who frequent the gym with this mantra? – “if it hurts, it works”. My reply to that is “if you told a doctor it was hurting he’d almost certainly advise you to stop it”. And the medical advice is right – there is no virtue in pain and suffering, only in stopping it. Of course, adversity can be borne with great courage and fortitude, and there is virtue in those things, a virtue which derives from the grace of God, and God’s image and likeness reverberating through us, but suffering itself is an evil.
And what of innocence? I had a friend at theological college who had two delightful twin daughters, who I used to tease about the innocence of children. “They aren’t born with it, they need innocence beaten into them by their parents”. We made it up, and she invited me to preach at her first mass, so all was well, but I learnt to be just a little careful making jokes about children with doting parents. On Christmas Day I was speaking on the telephone to my mother about her younger grand-daughter, who is five, and possessed of what she and my sister called “the WOW Factor”. I well remember her delight when I brought her – when she was very small – a present of a box of coloured paper tissues for about fifty pence. They entertained her all afternoon, and eventually littered the whole sitting room. I was – remain – a much more cynical child, and can’t help thinking that the Wow Factor is a very good way of cultivating in grown-ups the tendency to give more and better presents. But this is a step too far – for my niece – and many other children of all ages, it’s not cynical calculation, it’s sheer joie de vivre. That might not quite be innocence, but it’s not a bad approximation.
But returning to our Holy Innocents, slaughtered by King Herod (and the slaughter is by no means over, in so many parts of the world, and especially still in the Middle East) - is the cruelty done to them any less wicked because they are harmless and have done nothing to deserve it? Doesn’t Jesus call us to a higher standard than that, that all violence, all cruelty, all malice, and hatred, and spite, whatever the provocation, is sinful? And what of those who have hurt us – and we must all of us in this room have been hurt by others at some point or other – just how guilty were they? The instinct of furious vengeance abates when we start to ponder what hurt it was in them, that made them hurt us. And the tables turn when we look within, and question what hurt it is within us that makes us in turn hurt others.
So, why do we tell this tale, of the Holy Innocents? Where do we find any good news in it at all? Reading the actual Gospel for today – in the vestry, ten minutes before the service! – I wondered whether it’s about telling the truth, which is what Christmas is for. We celebrate the amazing grace that in the person of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, we see God, and in seeing God, we are ourselves brought to abundance of the life we live in God’s own image and likeness, that we share with Jesus.
These last couple of days, I have called in at Michael Sobell House, one of the local hospices, to see a friend who is receiving respite care. It’s a long time since I’ve been in a hospice – not since I was first a curate in Romford, I think, when we had a very good one just outside the parish – and its gentle calm reminded me of why the hospice movement is so popular and has found such favour, despite concentrating on the solemn and almost unmentionable subject of death. It’s because a hospice is a place where you can tell the truth – the truth about death, but also, because of that, the truth about the whole of life. Like Rachel, we can wail and lament that life is cut short, but it brings into sharper focus the gift of life itself – and the challenge to do all we can to make that life abundant now, no matter how long or short it will be.
And the truth is that this life, our life – like Bethlehem two thousand years ago – is touched by grace, by the real, living, love, of God, to which as brothers and sisters of that same God, made in that same image and likeness, we can call out, as Saint Paul teaches us, “Abba, Father”. This must surely be the truth that sets us free, the Good News of the Holy Innocents.