Despite its familiarity, the story of the Holy Innocents still has the power to shock and even scandalize. It assaults your sensibilities, your convictions of right and wrong, your knowledge of good and evil. It can certainly threaten your safety and security, and scare you, with the sort of things that give a parent nightmares.
Some things are sacred, surely, and ought to be left that way. Taking candy from a baby is the proverbial dirty trick, easy enough, but taking the baby from his mother is wicked. Even the world recoils at such horror, despite its own daily slaughter of the innocents. The whole country reeled at the news out of Penn State last month — horrible indeed — and today our own local paper describes the murder of a little girl who had been left in the care of a trusted family friend.
Such things are shocking and scary. They wake you up from your reverie, not only to righteous anger, but to repentance for your own sins, to cry out for mercy, forgiveness, deliverance and peace, from your God and Father. For you are His own dear child, and He is your only refuge.
But that is the very point at which the story of the Holy Innocents is most difficult and unsettling. Because it seems so backwards, and so wrong. As awful as King Herod and his actions are, you’re accustomed to the depravity of such tyrants. The Holy Scriptures and the history of the world are full of this kind of thing. What isn’t so normal or customary is the way the Lord responds and deals with the tyrant and his treachery in this case.
It is pivotal to the whole story of salvation, the very heart of the Gospel, that God gives His own dear Son to suffer and die in the place of fallen Adam and all the children of men. The Woman’s Seed is born to crush the serpent’s head. The Lamb of God is given as the Sacrifice, so that Abraham’s beloved Isaac is spared. The Passover is given so that the sons of Israel are not killed by the angel of death. The Son of David dies for His father’s sins. The little Lord Jesus is born to give His life as a Ransom for the many, in order to redeem the world.
Only, not this time. In this story, the little children are cruelly put to death, while Jesus gets away. It’s not just that people die — people die all the time. Pharaoh had how many babies killed before Moses grew up and came back to lead Israel out of Egypt? Christian martyrs still suffer and die, to this day, for the One who for their sake died and was raised. But the baby boys of Bethlehem get slaughtered so that Mary’s little Lamb can escape.
So, what has become of the Gospel? What is the point? Could the Lord not have dealt with this situation in some other way? Either without all the bloodshed, or by the shedding of the Christ Child’s Blood: the very purpose for which He is born!
Such thoughts and questions are almost inescapable in dealing with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Just as the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem could hardly help but wonder what was going on. Where was their God, while their babies were being murdered? Where was their Savior? Running away to Egypt? Seriously? Where is the future and the hope in that? Why should Rachel not weep and mourn for her children, who are no more?
Of course, you know the rest of the story, and, yes, it all makes sense in retrospect. With 20/20 hindsight you recognize that God surely has not spared His beloved Son, but has given Him up for us all. And we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, not to make light of their death, but to honor their martyrdom and to give thanks for their life and salvation. For Christ Jesus is their Savior and Redeemer, as He is also your Savior and Redeemer, and your children’s.
In the meantime, though, you are in the midst of living your own story, and you don’t yet know the rest of it. You know and confess the Resurrection and the Life everlasting, but you don’t know what will happen between now and then. You don’t know what tomorrow will hold, nor even what the middle of this very night may bring. Sometimes it all feels solid and sure, and then again, just like that, it can all be shaken to the core and leave you reeling.
Who are the soldiers that come crashing into your home in the dead of the night? The shrill ringing of the phone at an hour when you know it can’t be good. The urgent warning of your smoke alarms. The shattering of glass in your child’s room, or some other crash or cry in the dark. The blare of sirens racing past your home. Or maybe just the racing of your own heart.
What is it that snatches your babies from your arms? A miscarriage or stillbirth? A childhood illness or accident? Or maybe they don’t die, but they simply grow up and grow away from you. They have thoughts and ideas, hopes and dreams, interests and passions of their own — different from yours — and so you begin to recognize and feel the distance between yourself and your children. They make friends, they fall in love, they get married and have their own families. Or they go off to college and get jobs, and you’ve lost the babies they once were, no matter how desperately you try to cling to those bygone days and memories.
If you are still a little child, yourself, or still in the process of growing up, what is it that threatens you? What is it that tugs and pulls you away from your parents? What takes them away from you? Are you worried about your Mom and Dad, because they aren’t getting along so well, and you wonder if they’re going to get a divorce? Are you scared because they always seem to be so stressed about money, and it sounds like things might get pretty hard? But you’re too young, or too small, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to help. What kinds of monsters are there in your closet, or under your bed?
You never know when Herod is going to get angry and strike. And then what? Where will you turn, and what will you do? If he takes and destroys what is most precious to you, how shall you go on? Or will you refuse to be comforted and succumb to despair? Will you abandon all hope? Will you harden your heart and become bitter, resentful, and angry, yourself?
Herod was enraged because he was afraid. He lashed out, not with true strength or power, but with violence born of desperation. To hurt and destroy those who are small and weak — to threaten or bully the helpless — that is not courageous, but cowardly. Herod was paranoid and terrified; he got so very angry, because he was so very afraid of losing his place and his position in the world. He murdered his neighbor in order to protect himself, in order to keep what he thought was his.
Do not allow your own fear to control you in that way. Rather, fear the Lord, and repent of both your hot temper and your inconsolable grief. You will not be able to protect or save yourself, in any case; but you do have a Savior who will save you. You are not in control, but neither is Herod. None of the tyrants of this world will have the last word. Their violence and destruction are wicked and devastating, but all of that will come to nothing in the end. For the Lord has set His true King upon His holy hill of Zion, and He shall reign forever and ever.
His almighty power has been perfected in His own voluntary weakness, and it is demonstrated chiefly in His compassion for you, in His tender mercy and loving-kindness. He has and shows true strength in His Self-sacrifice, in His Self-giving, in His love for those at enmity with Him, in His forgiveness of those who sin against Him.
The Father, in love, has handed over His Son — even unto death upon the Cross. He is rescued from Herod’s wrath, because no one takes His life from Him, but He will lay it down willingly when the Hour has come. For the Son submits Himself entirely to His Father’s will, in perfect faith and holy love. He makes Himself small and weak, not only becoming a little creature of flesh and blood, but subjecting Himself to the frailties and mortality of fallen man. Already as a newborn Infant at His Mother’s breast, He lives by faith, as you are also called to live.
At all times, and in all places, He commends Himself, His body and soul, into the hands of His Father in heaven. But that also means entrusting Himself to the hands of His father on earth.
It falls upon dear St. Joseph to care and provide for the Christ Child and His Mother Mary. And Joseph sets a good example of faith and love for his wife and her Son, by hearing and heeding the Word of the Lord in quiet obedience.
As Dr. Luther admonishes in his preaching on the Christmas story, we should not romanticize any of these things, nor suppose that Mary and Joseph were made of stone. They were people like you, called by God to faith in His Word, forgiven by His grace through the Gospel, and set upon a path of love, bearing the Cross in the hope of the Resurrection.
Thus are you catechized in faith and love by their godly example.
Fleeing to a foreign country in the middle of the night, with Herod’s hot anger roaring behind you, is hardly a fun family vacation. Living and providing for a wife and child in a strange land is no picnic either. It is Joseph in Egypt all over again. But the Lord was with His Joseph in both cases, and He is with you, too.
You also are a stranger in a strange land, and the Lord would catechize you to live as such. That is to live by faith in Him, to fix your hope on Him, to lift up your heart unto Him, in peace.
So, what does that mean, and what will that look like?
It means that you are never finally “at home” in this world, in this life on earth, and yet you are able to make yourself “at home” wherever the Lord may call you to live and abide for a time. You receive and accept and rely upon His gracious providence, whether it be a stable when there is no room in the inn, or the gifts of strangers from the East when your own ruler is out to kill you and your family, or a safe haven in the land of pagan Pharaohs. Behind each of these masks, you behold the hand of your God and Father. Just as St. Mary and the Baby Jesus saw the hand of God in the care provided by St. Joseph. So do you live by the means that God provides for you.
Yet, while you gladly and gratefully receive His providential care, your hope and trust remain in Him alone, and these do not shift to the good gifts of His creation. You trust and honor and love the Lord in your parents and your spouse; and you trust and honor and love Him still, when you are bereft, orphaned or widowed. You receive all things with thanksgiving, and you sanctify them to yourself, to use and enjoy them, by the Word of God and prayer. But so do you remain content in all circumstances, even when everything is taken away from you. As God remains, and His Christ, though He died, ever lives, so do you live and abide in Him, both now and forever.
That is why you neither despair nor become defensive and angry when your life on earth and all your worldly possessions are threatened.
Not that you have learned this on your own, nor taken any of this to heart by your own cleverness, wisdom, or resolve. You are catechized by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, by His preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins. You are catechized by His Cross, as you are also baptized into His Cross.
Only by the Cross do you follow the Lamb wherever He goes — in and out of Egypt, through death and the grave, into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Only by the Cross do you learn the new song — the song of God and the Lamb — the never-ending song of heaven — which is the song of the Gospel, and of faith in the Gospel. For only by the Cross of Christ are you purchased from the earth and presented to God, blameless before Him. You are bought by the Blood of the Lamb, and bathed in His Blood. How, then, shall your life on earth not be bloody?
You are being crucified and put to death in the world, not only because the world and the devil hate you, but because your God and Father loves you. He does not gladly cause you pain, nor does He rejoice in your death, but He permits such heartache and loss, suffering and death, that you might be His own and live forever in Him. Thereby all falsehood is put to death in you, and all covetousness is put to death in you; all false hope, all anger and despair, all greed and selfishness, and all idolatry is put to death in you. Thus does the Lord work repentance in you by the Cross.
Ironically, one of the most difficult and painful places at which the Cross must work repentance in you, is precisely in those most precious and holy relationships to which the Lord has called you in this life. There is a constant tension between loving your parents and your spouse, as you are given to do, and the temptation to idolize them in the place that belongs only to the Lord your God. To be orphaned or widowed is an exquisite loss, because it brings that tension to a crisis point. Of course you rightly mourn the loss, but you are also called and brought to repentance, lest you despair of all hope and refuse the comfort of Christ Jesus.
In some ways, the challenge is all the greater in the case of your children. Your parents and your spouse are each, in their own way, masks of God for you, in whom you behold your Father in heaven and your heavenly Bridegroom. But if you are a father or mother, yourself, then God has given you His own place for your children. In this you are tempted, not only to make idols of your sons and daughters, but to make a false god of yourself. Thus, when they are lost to you, in one way or the other, it is you who are crucified and put to death by the Cross. You are put to death, that the true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may raise you from the dead in Him. Thus does He call you to repentance, to fear, love and trust in Him, through His forgiveness of sins.
What, then, am I saying? That the Lord sacrifices your children in order to spare you and save you? That He slaughtered the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem in order to rescue their parents?
No, that is not quite right. Did the Lord not stay the hand of father Abraham from slaying Isaac? Did He not give Seth in place of Abel? And did He not raise the widow’s son and the daughter of Jairus? He does not willingly grieve the sons of men. Nor is He the Author of death, but life.
Nevertheless, He does bring good out of evil, and He raises life from out of death. He permits the curse and consequences of sin — and by His Law, He increases and exacerbates these things — for the sake of discipline, correction and reproof, catechesis and repentance. He allows the devil his little day, and despots on earth their little reign of terror, that He might strengthen faith, and sanctify His people by the Cross, and finally prove His own faithfulness by raising up His saints.
None of this at your expense, but at the cost of God’s own Son. He has not fled the Cross, but He has fully borne and suffered it for you and for all, for your children, and your children’s children. Even with the flight into Egypt, the Lord Jesus was not spared the Cross. He was taking it upon Himself and bearing it for all the people. All the sins of Adam and Eve and all their children, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of all the sons of Israel, He took upon Himself, in order to atone for everything and to redeem everyone. He gathered up into His own Body and Life, into His own flesh and blood, the whole history of man (from the beginning to the end of the world), in order to obtain a future and a hope for all mankind in His bodily Resurrection from the dead.
That is where the Creed crescendoes: with the Resurrection of the crucified Christ, and with the Resurrection of the body unto the life everlasting for all who believe and are baptized into Him.
That is your future and your hope. That is the country to which your children also are called, to which they are gathered in Christ Jesus. They were created for such life with God in the first place.
The tyranny of sinful men and women is inexcusable, but the Lord does not permit it to thwart His good and gracious will for the salvation of all whom He calls and gathers to Himself in love.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His holy ones, who are blameless and innocent by the blood of the Lamb. He has not abandoned any one them, but He has brought them into Sabbath Rest, into endless joy and felicity, into eternal Peace.
He does not abandon you, either, who still live and work under the Cross. The life of faith and love is not easier than martyrdom, but neither is undertaken apart from Christ, who loves you. Whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s, and your life remains in and with Him forever and ever. When you mourn, He mourns with you, and just as surely will He turn your mourning into gladness and rejoicing. While you work and suffer, He works and suffers with you, and so shall your work be rewarded in His Resurrection from the dead. For if you are crucified with Him, so do you also rise with Him and live with Him.
You are a stranger in a strange land, on a pilgrimage in a foreign country. But you are not alone. You have not been forgotten, nor shall you be forsaken. Here, now, is Food for your journey. Open your mouth, and be fed. The Lord indeed is with you. And out of Egypt, at the last, He will surely call you, unto the true God who is your own dear Father in Him.
All glory, honor, thanks and praise be unto Him, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is one God, now and forever. Amen.
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