by Isaac Villegas
December 29, 2013
The Christmas season is full of magic, a season of miracles — Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus surprising children with gifts, stories of angels appearing to shepherds in the night sky, and, the miracle of all miracles, the advent of Christ, God as human flesh and blood. Christmas is a season of magic, of wonder and joy, a season of enchantment.
I wish we could stay there, in that moment, in that season, for a while longer, another week, another month, forever. I wish that kind of life for all of us, a fantastical life, alive with magic, where every day brings another joyful surprise, where every day brings fulfillment, renewal, peace — “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace,” “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… They will not hurt or destroy,” “the peoples shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Those were the words of promise we heard during Advent and Christmas, words of restoration, of goodness. But today, on the first Sunday after Christmas, we remember a story from Matthew’s Gospel, the story Brie just read for us — the massacre of the innocents, Herod’s shocking violence.
Or, I should say, almost shocking, because the violence is all too familiar, because violence is our legacy, a human history with a multitude of Herods, episode after episode of horrors.
The year after I graduated from High School I sat in a room with my friends, all of us young, college students — we were stunned as we watched the news from Colorado, horrified at the images from the shooting at Columbine High School.
On September 11, I was in that same room, with some of my same friends, still in college, still young, and we were glued to the T.V., horrified at the wreckage, the ruthlessness of it all.
In 2010 I watched a classified military video on my computer, leaked by Bradley Manning and posted on the web by Wikileaks. They called it, “Collateral Murder,” because it showed a U.S. helicopter rain down bullets in a Baghdad suburb, killing 12 people, 15 people — we don’t know — civilians, including two journalists with Reuters, one of whom was carrying a large video camera on his shoulder, which the helicopter pilot thought was an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade.
Two weeks ago, as we were preparing for Christmas, U.S. drones shot missiles at people gathered for a wedding, in Yemen, killing 16, wounding at least 10 more. Intelligence officers mistook the wedding procession for an al Qaeda convoy.
Herod’s massacre in Bethlehem would be shocking, if it wasn’t for all the other shocking episodes of violence I’ve witnessed, the violence we’ve witnessed, episode after episode of human cruelty.
A passage comes to mind, from the writings of Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher who escaped the Nazis in Germany, only to find himself hiding from the Nazis in France, because the French government had agreed to had over Jews to the Gestapo, who would put them on a train to a concentration camp. While a refugee in France, fearing his capture, Benjamin wrote about a painting of an angel. The angel’s face is turned toward the past. “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings spread,” Benjamin wrote. The angel stares at human history, and “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage… The angel would like to stay, [to] awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But a storm catches his wings, and “propels [the angel] into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward,” always in his vision, but forever out of reach.
I think Walter Benjamin captures the horror of history as a record of generations of Herods, of Herod-like violence. The angel wants to reach out and awaken the dead, to restore what has been devastated, to return what has been taken away, Benjamin says, but the angel is powerless, hopeless.
And what are we supposed to do? A temptation would be to turn away, to turn our back on the past, to turn away from the loss, the cruelty, to try to ignore the aftershocks of violence in the present, and to live a life of fantasy, as if such horrors have nothing to do with us, as if those lives have nothing to do with our lives.
But Matthew’s Gospel won’t let us live like that, because the story that drives the plot is bound up with an episode of unbearable devastation. When we remember the birth of Jesus, we can’t help but remember Herod’s hunt for Jewish children. When we hear the angels rejoice in the night sky, praising the birth of the Messiah, we can’t help but hear the weeping and wailing in Bethlehem: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Ever since the 5th century, the Western church has included a day of remembrance for the children who were killed by Herod around the time that Jesus was born. Today is called the day of the Holy Innocents, a day to remember these children who have been considered the first Christian martyrs, the people whose death paid the price for Christ’s life — collateral damage, we would say today, in our world of drone strikes and bullets from the sky, Herod’s collateral murder.
In Walter Benjamin’s reflections, the angel is powerless “to stay [and] awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” And so are we. This is something only the Messiah can do, the Christ, who draws God closer and closer into human history, who pulls God deeper and deeper into human life, into our lives, and makes a way for resurrection, for God’s life to infuse human life with newness.
Our hope is not only that Jesus was born, and that in Jesus God became human. Our hope is also that Jesus was raised from the dead, that the Messiah was killed, just as all those children in Bethlehem were killed, and that he was resurrected, and that one day he will resurrect all the other victims of Herod, all the other victims of generations of Herods, and restore what has been crushed, heal what has been wounded — that the Messiah, the Christ, will revive life, eternally: the resurrection of all of the sisters and brothers of Jesus.
In the meantime, we wait and we remember the promise we read at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel — the word we heard at the birth of Jesus: that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. This is the same promise we hear at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the last word of his story, the final verse. Jesus tells his disciples, he tells us, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”
God is with us, not just to comfort us, not to make it so we can escape the violence all around us, but to empower us, to draw us into the life of Jesus, into the life of God, here and now — a life of healing, of restoration, of resurrection, because we believe in a God who listens to wailing and lamentations, from Bethlehem, from every Bethlehem, every community threatened by violence, a God who listens to Rachael, weeping for her children, refusing consolation because her children are no more.
We believe in a God who listens to Jesus, who like the mothers of Bethlehem, cries out as he hangs from the cross at Golgotha, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And God responds with the only answer that makes sense, the only answer that takes us seriously, that takes human life seriously. God answers with the only way that matters for a history of wailing, of lamentation.
God answers with resurrection.