NOTES FOR A MORE COHERENT SERMON: Feast of the Holy Innocents

(celebrated instead of either the First Sunday after Christmas
or the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ)
11:00 a.m., January 1, 2012
St. Andrew’s Old Roman Catholic Church
138 Pears Ave. Meeting Room
Toronto, Ontario

FIRST LESSON

Revelation 14: 1 – 5

I saw, and, behold, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.  These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.

GOSPEL OF THE DAY:

Matthew 2: 13b – 18

The angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:  And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called my son. “

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. “

SERMON PROPER BEGINS

Not growing up in the Catholic world, I was unaware of the calendar of feast days. I was not exposed, during my youth, to the ongoing challenge of seasonally thinking in different ways that God interacted with humanity. I learned about feast days and related spiritual disciplines from people active in the peace movement and primarily from individuals such as Tom Joyce, Len Desroches and Joe Mihavec who were part of, or supporters of, the Cruise Missile Conversion Project. In particular, I learned about the Feast of the Holy Innocents which was chosen as a day of prayer, reflection and civil disobedience at the gates of Litton Industries. Litton Industries, on City View Drive in northwest Toronto, was in the 1970s and 1980s a focus of major protests of the production of the guidance system of the air launched cruise missile. The Cruise Missile Conversion Project wanted Litton Industries to be converted to the production of civilian goods.

Those that chose the Feast of the Holy Innocents as a day of presence at Litton did so because in the preparation of the tools of modern warfare an echo of the actions of Herod was seen. Just as Herod caused the slaughter of children because he was afraid of what the future might bring as a result of the birth of Jesus, our modern world prepared for and participated in the slaughter of innocents due to fear and the desire for power. Being silent when weapons of mass destruction are developed and used makes us complicit what happens around the world when the innocents and powerless of the world have their lives woven into the power struggles of the mighty. Being at the gates of Litton was a time to examine ourselves as people living in a world that does not value children, as living in a world where families have to flee as refugees, a world in which violence is justifiable tool to achieve a political end.

Being at the gates of Litton was a statement that being people of faith who remember with shame and horror the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem we are called to build up a world in which such evil is not repeated, whether in the small scale of our homes or where war is being fought around the world.

We hear in the Gospel what can happen when a political leader, with little restraint on their power, is frightened. They can lash out blindly, sweeping into the lives of innocents with violence. Herod was afraid of what a political messiah could do and he tried to kill everyone who could possibly grow up to be the messiah. His motivations could even been positive. A political messiah, a claimant to the Jewish throne, could cause the Romans to take over the last remains of Jewish independence and slaughter everyone who they saw as connected to the Messiah. A messiah, in the apocalyptic times of 2,000 years ago, could threaten the balance that kept the Jewish faith alive in the centuries since the end of the Babylonian captivity. The magi who had visited the infant Jesus made it clear that someone unique was happening in the world—and Herod chose to deal with it through directed, mass violence. Herod had many options before him, from doing nothing to seeking out the specific infant he saw as a threat to seeking advice and help from the wider community. For what may have been the best of motives, Herod chose to do evil on a wide scale. And he created the first martyrs for our faith, completely innocent by-standers who died because of fear as a result of God being among us.

Jesus did live through this period thanks to Joseph being willing to believe a divine warning. I could easily imagine Joseph not taking this warning seriously—we all get a feeling of something bad about to happens, things that rarely, if ever, occur. A bad dream would not likely to get us to rush to a strange land in order to protect our family.

Jesus and Mary were fortunate that Joseph believed the dream and brought his family to Egypt as refugees. They found a haven in a strange land. Jesus would have had to learn Greek (the dominant language of Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great); if his family settled in Alexandria—the major city of Egypt of the time and a good place for a carpenter to find work—he would have been immersed in centre of learning for Roman empire at the time. The possibility of Jesus to have lived a sheltered life was shattered by living as a refugee in a foreign land. His having been a refugee helps to explain why Jesus was so compassionate to the needs of the outsider.

Something good did come from the actions of Herod—the divine Jesus experienced the results of fear, hatred and oppression in his formative years among us. But just as the best of motives doesn’t excuse an evil action, an unintended good result doesn’t justify evil. We can learn from and overcome harm we have experienced, but we would be healthier if we never experienced violence or tragedy in our lives.

When I was in front of Litton Industries approximately 30 years ago I was seeking a world where compassion was stronger than fear, where love was more omnipresent than hate, where violence was no more because we converted our swords into plows and our spears into pruning hooks—I sought to live in a place and time where the Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat were woven into the fabric of daily life. I saw in the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem the same evil that resulted in the bombing of Hiroshima, the realities of Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of Wounded Knee, the burning times of the witch hunts of Europe…the evil that was done by people who believed that the ends justified the means. I also saw, thanks to those who were a part of the Cruise Missile Conversion Project the value in the examples of St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Simon Menno, Martin Luther King and others within the broader faith community who believed that the way one lived in the world was the key way of showing the value of the Gospel to the world around us and that if one was going to engage the world in a struggle for the shalom kingdom, a world of peace, justice and compassion, one had to do so in such a way that the means and the ends were one. Otherwise, whatever our motivation, evil will be the outcome of our actions.

We are entering a new year, carrying with us all our memories and experiences. Let us seek to leave it with memories of what we have accomplished during the year, every small step we take towards the building up of God’s kingdom on earth. When we give clothes to those on the streets; when we bring meals to shut-ins; we we move our money from banks to credit unions; when we bite our tongue rather that respond with anger; when we say no to violence in our homes, in our neighbourhoods or around the world; when we find a way to welcome the refugee into our city…in all these ways we are showing that the Kingdom of God is alive and welcoming all those seeking to live more fully in harmony with one another and with all of creation.

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