With the news this last week that 235 thousand civilians were fleeing the northern Syrian province of Idlib - you might have been forgiven for not paying much attention. ‘So what’s new?’ The endless civil war in Syria, so often rumoured to be drawing to an end, just keeps running with this week’s 235,000 refugees topping up the 6 million or so including over 2 million children who have fled the conflict zone over the last six years. Except that this little pot of Christmas horror is made worse because of Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds, enabled by the withdrawal a couple of months ago of US forces. Which means this week’s wave of refugees can’t flee north into Turkey, only deeper into the shrinking rebel-held territory and more attacks by Syrian forces.
It’s a chill reminder of the elusiveness of the peace on earth we so eagerly claim at Christmas time, the peace that is as far beyond our grasp this Christmas as it was when Jesus was born into the middle of the toxic pax Romana, the doctrine of the then world-superpower that peace depended on the violent elimination of all forms of opposition. One of the things that happens for me at Christmas time, despite all the falseness of commercialism and the frantic busyness of celebration, the transformation that steals in for me every year almost at the last moment, like a poor family creeping into a leaky farm shed at five minutes to midnight, is the sense that we are all connected, that we all have a stake in one another and that the well-being even of people I have never met is an essential part of my own well-being. Because in the birth of Jesus it seems to me God is saying to us, ‘now, I have a stake in you and you have a stake in me – blood’s thicker than water! now, we are all related’. But we don’t get to stay very long in the warm glow of the stable, basking in the lazy euphoria of a young mother breastfeeding the child who we know somehow changes everything for us – the stable turns out to be all too flimsy a refuge because within a few days – in liturgical time, at least – the gentleness of the nativity scene is broken apart by the brutal realities of political power.
We don’t really know why King Herod was so insecure, why he became the tyrant that he did. But it is historically very well attested, both in the Bible and outside it, that Herod the Great was a brutal and manipulative ruler. Outside the Bible there’s actually no historical evidence for St Matthew’s Massacre of the Innocents, but the story we have in the Gospel reading today is completely in character. Herod’s bloodthirsty ways were so well known that even the Emperor Augustus was said to have remarked that it would be better to be one of Herod's pigs (in Greek, hys) than one of his sons (hyios) – it’s a grim play on words, better to be a pig belonging to Herod who as a Jew abstained from eating pork, than one of his sons who he had strangled when it appeared they might become a political threat. Despite the fact that Herod must have known that someone would one day replace him – no one lives forever – the picture we have is of a man desperately clinging to power. The children he massacred in his search for Jesus paid the price of his insecurity. This is actually a fairly familiar story, even in today’s world. In fact we take it so much for granted in our modern world that we have a chillingly rationalistic name for it, we call it ethnic cleansing. Getting rid of whole populations. Children massacred for no more reason than that some paranoid tyrant feels threatened, or some nation or ethnic group feels historically aggrieved.
In Matthew’s account of the story, Jesus only escapes Herod’s slaughter because Joseph receives divine warning in a dream. Again, we’ve got no real way of telling how accurate this story is historically, and given the parallels with Old Testament stories of Israel going down to Egypt to seek refuge from famine, guided by another dreamer named Joseph - then being rescued out of Egypt away from Pharaoh’s murderous plot to kill all Hebrew boy children – there’s an almost irresistible mythical character to the story of the Holy family’s flight into Egypt. The value of the story is less in being sure that it actually happened like that, more in being sure that the world that Jesus is born into, no less than the world that you and I inhabit, is a world defined by the ugly calculus of power. Jesus’ family become refugees, asylum seekers – sharing with last week’s desperate convoy of Syrian civilians the same reality of danger and uncertainty.
Even though Matthew only gives it a line or two, the slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt has become the inspiration of all sorts of legends and stories down the centuries. According to one legend, the Holy Family are sleeping in a cave when Herod’s men come looking for them, but while they sleep a tiny spider spins a web across the cave entrance to protect them - the soldiers don’t search the cave because they figure that nobody could have got in without breaking the web. Maybe the reason for all the legends and all the imagination around the story of the flight into Egypt is that it touches a common chord in humanity – it resonates with the actual experience of too many ordinary men, women and children. The Christ-child that represents the brightest hope of the world’s future miraculously escapes – too many other children who also represent everything that is new, hopeful and vulnerable in the world, do not.
Perhaps in the story the children represent our longing for the future. How often do we repeat the expression, ‘the children are the future’? – that’s what they represent in the Gospel story as well. But real children are easily killed, and so are our figurative children – our faltering attempts to build a new life and a new world. They are smothered with cynicism, strangled by envy, shaken to death by our fears. There are too many King Herods abroad in the world – too many death-dealing tyrants that desperately need to kill off any threat to the status quo.
But the message of the gospel is that, however great the power of death might be, the power of God’s life is stronger. God will find a way, says the Bible, however unlikely, to bring hope out of what looks like a hopeless situation. Just remember the history of God’s faithfulness to God’s people – remember how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, remember how God brought them home from exile in Babylon. Just remember, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, how God raised Jesus from the darkness of death to new life of resurrection. God has done this in the lives of countless men and women through the ages who’ve lived in times of terror and yet found healing, forgiveness, a new dignity, and a new identity.
So this story is not just about the cruelty and hopelessness of the world – it is also about the survival of hope in the midst of the worst the world can do. Sometimes that hope seems to shrink to a single point, as it does in our story this morning when we see Joseph, with Mary and the baby, setting out across the Negeb into Egypt. Sometimes hope seems forlorn when tyrants apparently prevail, as they did this week in Syria. But against that we have the promise of God’s faithfulness, and the example of a family who trust enough in the future to disappear into the blurred uncertainty of a desert.
So, what’s the good news here? Coming, appropriately enough, right at the beginning of a New Year with all of its unknowns, a blank calendar already stretched to the limit with its burden of hopes and anxieties, the story of the massacre of the innocents drags us out of the stable just in time and reminds us that what we really need is not just a baby for adoring in a manger but a grown-up messiah who reminds us that God’s grace is at home in the world of risk, uncertainty and opposition. God’s grace consists of the single spark of hope in the long, dark night of hopelessness that human beings manufacture for themselves. We know that with the death of Herod the Great and the long journey back to Nazareth the danger is still not over. Another Herod is coming onto the scene, and we know how that story is going to end. The Christmas of angelic pyrotechnics and fluffy sheep is over, folks. Welcome to Christmas in the real world.