Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

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Protect the Children!

Like everyone else I am shocked and saddened by the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The loss of twenty children’s lives is unfathomable. I cannot imagine the pain and grief of the parents, and I pray for them and the families of the adult victims, too. We have all noticed that many of the newscasters have painted this massacre as “evil.” They are absolutely correct.

For more evidence of evil’s reality, read Dr. Scott Peck’s book, ­People of the Lie. He talks about all kinds of evil and contends that those who exhibit it most dangerously are those whom have no conscience and are so enamored with themselves that they have a coating of self-assured Teflon. They are so deluded that no sense of personal responsibility sticks with them. They are narcissistic gods of their own dominions. This is the source of much of the evil in our world and especially the evil that victimizes children in human trafficking, pornography, neglect, sexual abuse, and the like.

Those who perpetrate these attacks on children are minions of a worse Evil that has been around ever since the Garden of Eden. In other words, there’s a history of evil’s war against children and it didn’t start this Christmas. For instance, when God-in-the-flesh Jesus was born, narcissistic King Herod’s jealousy was inflamed when the Magi came to visit the Christ Child. With his own power threatened by a child, he ordered all the little boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity murdered (Matthew 2:13-18).

Indeed, evil has been attacking children from the beginning of history. Who have been and continue to be the hardest hit victims of hunger, war, and crime – children, the innocents? I’ve seen this terrible history’s evidence. One of my seminary professors showed us tangible proof of atrocities against children. He brought a clay jar about 12 inches tall to class. He had acquired it on an archaeological dig in Carthage, located in modern day Tunisia. He described to us how there were thousands upon thousands of these urns unearthed. He opened up the urn and scattered across the desk the ashes and tiny bones. It was a child. In Middle Eastern culture there were those who thought that fertility gods would bless you if you paid homage by sacrificing one’s children.

This urn reflected the reality of ancient Israel’s compromise with the surrounding cultures. 2 Kings 17:7-23, especially verse 17, describes why this caused God to send them into exile in 722 B.C. They followed the Baal and Molech-worshipping practices that were prevalent in Carthage and many other places. They put their young children on a pyre of wood, slit their throats, and while they were dying of blood loss they also burned them to death. How horrible! The burial grounds called Tophet(h) in Carthage were replicated all around the Mediterranean, including the Valley of Ben Hinnom just outside the gates of Jerusalem. God punished the Israelites because they attacked their own children!

So at the first Christmas and throughout the Biblical witness there is ample evidence of children being victimized by evil. God, on the other hand, is always on the side of children. Let’s just use Jesus as described in Matthew’s Gospel as an example. In Matthew 18:1ff the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and the text says, “He called a little child and had him stand among them. He said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…’” The text goes even further and says about those who mislead a child (vs.6), “It would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Even with this endorsement of children and warning to those who would mistreat them, the disciples still didn’t get it. Matthew 19:13ff says, “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”

On this day of wondering, “Why?” there is very little that a anyone can say to the distraught and heartbroken people across Newtown, Connecticut, the U.S., or the whole world in which children will continue to be targeted by Evil’s attacks. There are unanswerable questions of why didn’t God strike down the shooter, why my child, why, why, why? The only answer is that evil did this, not God. God has a history of being on the side of children. Jesus in John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Let’s tell our children that there’s a war between good and evil, and evil often wins; but there will be a Day when good will have the final word and evil will be no more.

Until then we need to trust in the loving Parent who is on our side and does everything in God’s power to shield us in this freedom-ridden world which allows terrible crimes to occur. God allows us humans to have freedom only to see it abused. It is a mystery and we wish God would set things right so nothing like this will ever happen again. We know that in Bethlehem’s Babe the process of retaking the world for good has begun, and we say, “Come, Lord Jesus – Come!”

In the meantime, we can all hug our children and count every second with them as precious gifts beyond measure. We can do all that we can to protect them better. We can pass gun laws. We can pray, and especially we can teach children that houses of worship are supposed to be sanctuaries – places of refuge and protection in an evil world that specifically targets them. Christmas is a witness that this world has little or no room for the Christ Child who was born in a stable, but we can make room for Him in our hearts and live like Him in the world. We can send the message that while evil does lurk across the land, there is a God who has consistently proven love toward the least of these. God even chose to come and live among us as a child because children best reflect God’s purest creation.

Oh, God, please overshadow the broken lives of your children everywhere and give grace and comfort. Teach us to offer sanctuary to children so that we might better reflect the coming Prince of Peace, even Jesus the Christ. Stop the evil Herod’s of this fallen world, and help us to do our part in crushing crimes against children of all ages. In a choice between light and darkness, let us always choose the light of redeeming love. Amen.