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The Holy Innocents
Revd Sue Lucas, Sunday, Dececmber 28th, 2014

The Empire of Ancient Rome existed in an atmosphere of violence. Don’t be deceived by the picture painted by some recent documentaries – and I greatly admire Mary Beard, by the way – but the pax Romana was no peace – simply, the conflict and struggle that constituted the social bond of subjugated peoples was ruthlessly suppressed; sometimes subtly, by cultural appropriation, or economic manipulation; but sometimes, an atmosphere of violence broke out, viciously into actual violence – it was the Roman way or the highway.

Herod was part of this atmosphere of violence; a Hellenised Jew, he was made client king over Palestine and managed, on the whole, to maintain an uneasy calm whilst barely bothering to disguise his ruthlessness; never quite taken seriously by either his Roman masters or the Jerusalem Jewish elite, for whom he was a Hellenised Johnny-come-lately, the unease in the social bond was, at the same time, his own.

Today’s Gospel shows in stark terms how this uneasily maintained, essentially violent calm, breaks out in the starkest ways into violence and the murder of innocents – these are the tactics of shock and awe.  The point is not simply to remove the threat of the Infant King to Herod’s dubious hold on power – but to send a powerful message to the people – do not cross me.

We do not know about the historicity of this particular event; but its random and overblown shock and awe are recognisably those of a tyrant without legitimacy.

And in including it here – Matthew reminds us powerfully that Empire has always used the tactics of shock and awe to suppress dissent.  Jesus is taken into Egypt – like Moses; and Jesus’ birth is in the context of the forces of Empire murdering infants; there is a deliberate echo of the beginning of the Exodus story, in which Pharaoh also orders the murder of all the infants of two years and under.

The connection is deliberate: the writer is showing Jesus as the new Moses, the liberator of his people, the one who overcomes all the powers of Empire, and who brings in the Kingdom of God.

But as in the case of Moses and Pharaoh, as in the case of all power – imperial power is not going to give up before unleashing horrific violence, shock and awe – its very horror, perhaps symptomatic of Empire in its death throes -  a monster that knows when it’s beaten but lashes out all the same.

This is all too hideously familiar to us; for don’t we too live in an atmosphere of violence?  Don’t we too live under the shadow of Empire?  Perhaps no longer the Empire of the USA, but the Empire of global capital with its economic and social and, sometimes too, all too often perhaps actual violence.  We see violence unleashed on children from Bethlehem to Baghdad, and, recently, and shockingly, in Peshawar; and, lest we think we can wash our own hands in innocence, we have heard recently what the Security forces have done in our name – unleashing the forces of terror in a so-called war on terror.

In the face of the horrendous atmosphere of violence in which we live, it is easy to feel helpless; easy to feel we are power-less and can do nothing; easy, even to give in to the temptation to apathy and despair;

Yet, as disciples of Christ, who came to set us free from all that prevents us from being the best human beings we can – we are called to do something and to be something different; we cannot make every kind of difference; but that doesn’t mean we can make no kind of difference;

We are called, first, to pray for those who are innocent victims of violence; and in doing so, we are not to forget that prayer is a radical act; it is not manipulating God into doing something, but recognising that we are called to live in the faith that God is present despite appearances to the contrary, and even in the worst of places;

Second, we are called, in modest but significant ways to act; some of us sent Christmas cards to prisoners of conscience; some contributed to Christian Aid’s Christmas appeal; small acts, perhaps, but palpable, concrete and real signs of the Kingdom;

But most challengingly –we are, all of us, called to repent – for, whilst we are properly in solidarity with the innocent victims of violence, we should never forget the violence that is in each of us as well – the violent innocence that refuses to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – that we too can be Herod, or Pharaoh – that we too can turn viciously on others when we are threatened; we too can love being right and being powerful more than we love God.

And to the extent that we are able to pray, to act and to repent – to live, in fact, in that continuous cycle of grace and repentance that is Christian discipleship we claim our freedom in Christ – and not for ourselves alone, but as disciples, to play our part in ending the atmosphere of violence in which we live, and making way for the rule of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Prince of Peace.  Amen.


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