Fourth Week of Advent: Kings vs. Kids (Mt 2:16-23)

In the birth narrative of both Moses and Jesus, regular people resist authority to protect life–but the Empire inevitably strikes back, and the slaughter of innocents ensues.  The Bible is so much clearer than we are about the violent realities of Statecraft!  “Rachel weeps” (Mt 2:17f = Jer 31:14) over such an absurd mismatch: emperors vs. infants!  Yet such is the paradox of biblical history.  As imperial minds plot genocide, God’s messengers enter the world at risk: floating down the Nile in a reed basket (Ex 2:3), spirited out of the country on back roads (Mt 2:14).  Against the presence of Power is pitted the power of Presence: God with us.
Matthew’s Advent story concludes with Joseph’s third and final dream (Mt 2:19-23). Herod’s death allows a return to Palestine, but the danger remains, and the holy family settles in an obscure frontier village.  It is there at the margins that Jesus grows up, until the day he will commence his public mission to face down the Powers once and for all. 
Matthew’s terrible tale of Herod’s war against children is commemorated in the Feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28th.  Not well-known by U.S. Christians, it was instituted by the Latin Church in the fifth century to preserve the “underside” of the Christmas story.  Perhaps the old church anticipated that the Nativity season would become too sentimentalized, too innocuous, and too triumphal in a comfortable Christendom (how right it was!).  So this Feast was wisely instituted as a sharp counterpoint to all the pious pageantry. 
The Feast of the Innocents offers a grim reminder that there was and is a political cost to the Incarnation—that Jesus was born not in a palace but in a feed trough to parents who were refugees, not royalty.  The Bible is clear from beginning to end that the Principalities and Powers of this age—represented by corporate managers and political operatives and military strategists in every epoch—are forever threatened by the God who invades our world from below.  In the name of national security, level orange, suspects (and all others who fit the profile) must be contained and neutralized.  The result: “A voice is heard in Ramah”—the sound of women mourning. It is the children who are always the first victims. 
The somber Feast interrupts our Christmas and New Year’s reveling with the discomforting thought that behind the obfuscating rhetoric of “collateral damage” is the terrible reality of human lives caught in the cross fire.  That it is mostly women and children on the business end of our security sweeps, surgical strikes and shock and awe campaigns.  This is, I suppose, why the Feast is routinely ignored by our churches, who would rather avoid the inconvenient intrusion of both Word and World on our insular holiday feasting.  I am grateful to friends at Jonah House ( for teaching me its importance.  Each year for decades on Dec 28th they hold “Faith and Resistance” retreats that bear witness against militarism at the Pentagon.  Because kids continue to be victimized by kings.  
The ongoing story of suffering innocents still goes largely unreported in our media, of course, from the horn of Africa to the Amazon, from Gaza to Greensboro.  This is why the Feast of Innocents is a gift to us, if an importunate one.  It comes just as we are engaging in our year-in-review rituals and New Year’s resolution-making, demanding that we include in our purview the lives of those who are at risk.  And it invites us to nurture our hope in the Christ child with eyes wide open to a world full of disappeared, homeless, trafficked and traumatized children. 
Matthew’s Christmas pageant is a much-needed, if painful, corrective to the holiday season’s saccharine sentimentality and cacophonous commercialism.  This Nativity speaks frankly of ambiguity, political violence, displacement and danger—which is to say, of real life as it is for the poor.  It is a story for our world, which also teems with refugees, lamenting mothers, and the murderous designs of the powerful. 
But this is the world in which God is with us, into which God has come and yet will come.  The only question is: Will we recognize the Presence, and act accordingly?
We at BCM wish each of you a blessed Christmastide.