The Holy Innocents
In the midst of the joy of the Christmas season, today’s Scripture can feel rather perverse. While we celebrate the coming of our Lord, as a baby, Matthew points out one of the most horrific ironies of the whole story…that Jesus’ birth inadvertently caused the murder of every male child under two years old in Bethlehem. The church refers to these children as ‘the Holy Innocents’.
That mass slaughter was, of course, ordered by Herod the Great – the local King – who wanted to defend his throne from what he saw as the threat of Jesus, the King of Kings. It is of course tragic that Herod did not realise that Jesus was not interested in taking any earthly throne. As he later said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world. But Herod did not grasp this profound truth…like so many men of power, he saw a threat, and reached out to crush it. He killed defenceless children, in order to defend his own throne.
For many people who struggle with the whole idea of God, human suffering is one of their greatest stumbling blocks. This is especially true, perhaps, for those who have lost a child. One of the first questions to come to mind is often ‘why?’ or rather ‘How could a loving God stand by and let this innocent child die?’ Perhaps there were mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who had seen the star, and then the shepherds and the wise men arrive. Perhaps they understood that this child born in their stable was indeed a special, Godly child. I wonder what they thought of God when the soldiers arrived and murdered their sons.
And I wonder what the parents of the Pakistan school children think of God, as they continue to mourn their children slain by the Taliban last week. I wonder what the parents of young Ebola victims think God is doing in West Africa at the moment. 10 years after the Boxing Day Tsunami, in which around 250,000 people lost their lives, emotions are undoubtedly still red raw for many. Where is God in all this suffering? If he is a good God at all, how could he stand by and let all this suffering go on?
The Archbishop of Canterbury was confronted with this same question during the last week, when he was interviewed on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on Radio 4. The interviewer asked him to talk about the time when he lost his 7 month-old daughter in a tragic car accident. He was asked whether that gave him a point of connection with other people who have lost loved ones in unexplained suffering. His response was fascinating. He said (and I paraphrase from memory) that he didn’t claim to understand the reasons why such suffering is permitted by God. But instead he tends to point people to the young man who was nailed unjustly to a Cross. For the Archbishop, it seems, God in Jesus, completely enters our world with all its messiness and ugliness. He shares in our suffering. He identifies with it. He takes it on…and ultimately defeats it.
Is that then the purpose of suffering? Does God allow suffering in order to use it…to use it as way of demonstrating his greater power over even death? Perhaps that is part of the picture. But the issue of suffering is like one of those jigsaws that many of us received on Christmas day. We’ve already begun to put the pieces together…we might have already found the edge pieces and stuck them in place…but the main picture itself is only just beginning to become clear.
Some of the pieces of the jigsaw of suffering include certainly the kind of ideas that the Archbishop pointed us towards on Desert Island Discs. God is certainly able to take suffering and transform it. The stories of Jesus’ coming, his teaching, his death and resurrection point to all of that. Countless followers of God can testify that their own suffering, or grief, have been transformed by God’s love and power. And we believe with all our hearts that the suffering of this ‘mortal coil’ has been wiped away for those we have loved who now ‘rest in peace’.
But there is a danger that we must guard against in any discussion about suffering. It’s the danger of believing, as some in Christianity and other religions sometimes do, that everything which happens is ‘the will of God’. Was it God’s will that Herod should order the murder of the Holy Innocents? No. That was Herod’s will. Was it God’s will that hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern children would spend this winter as refugees all over the Arab world? No. That is the will of the politicians and war-lords of the Middle East, as they compete for power with their guns.
It all comes down to the question of our will, not God’s. The only sense in which God is involved is in his generous granting of free will to human beings. God gives humanity the freedom to choose which will to submit to. He gives a simple choice, a choice in biblical language used at the time of the 10 commandments, between a blessing and a curse. We either choose to live God’s way, and to be blessed beyond measure. Or we choose to live our own way, and up cursing ourselves. Why does he give us this choice? Quite simply because, like any parent, our Father wants us to choose to love him. Any other kind of love would be unreal, and pointless.
The notion of free will is a simple explanation for things like the murder of the Holy Innocents. But does it explain the suffering of Ebola, or that of the Tsunami, or any number of natural disasters. I think it does. I think that the jigsaw picture is capable of coming into focus even about such issues. It is not natural disasters themselves which cause suffering..it is the human response to them. West Africans are dying from Ebola at the moment because they are too poor to have the right medical equipment in place, or too poorly educated to understand how to remain safe around it. That poverty is not the fault of West Africans…it is the fault of all human beings who refuse to share. The boxing day Tsunami killed so many people because the nations affected lacked early warning systems, or the wealth required to defend their homes and cities against a known threat.
A blessing from God. Or a curse brought about by man. The choice which God has always given his people remains our choice today. It’s the choice of all human beings everywhere…on the international stage, as well as in the local parish. It’s the choice which you and I face every moment of every day. Will we live God’s way? Or will we choose our own? And how many more ‘Holy Innocents’ do their need to be before we make up our minds?