“It’s not time for a baby to be born,
With a land betrayed by war and hatred
And a comet that cuts the sky to warn
That time is running out and the sun is burning late. ”
-Madeleine L’Engle, “Risk of Birth”
Feast of the Holy Innocents (aka Children’s Day or Innocent Day), referring to Matthew’s account of King Herod’s order to kill all male babies in and around Bethlehem in order to suppress a potential rival, was founded in the fifth century BC. Some Christian communions in the West officially mark December 28 or, in the East, December 29.
However, in most congregations, this ritual is mostly forgotten. You can understand why. Who wants to stop chirping songs, the scene of ornate trees and lighted homes, and the post-Christmas sale with the story of the baby massacre?
Needless to say, several church Christmas selections, if any, with children in bathrobes and various other improvised costumes, include the story of Matthew 2. Candlelight services on Christmas Eve ignore this Christmas story.
It’s a fun story. It is certainly not suitable for young children (like many other stories in the Bible). Fortunately, few people today remember that in some European communities before the 17th century, the day began with parents beating their children to remind them of the suffering of these newborns, who – as it sounds scary – are considered the first martyrs.
But the church ignores this holiday to our peril and the integrity of our proclamation.
A lesson from Iraq
In 2003, I was asked to lead a final group of volunteers to join a delegation of activists present in Iraq, trying to testify and tell a different story about the reality of that corrupt country – which would only be reinforced by the US invasion.
I was in trouble on a long flight to Amman in Jordan, and then the first two hours – to the Iraqi border – a 12-hour drive through the desert. Although not because of my destination. Two days before leaving, I suddenly remembered that I had an Israeli customs stamp in my passport. You cannot enter Iraq if you have such a stamp.
There was no time to get a new passport. Urgent attempts to wash that stamp from my passport did not work. So I stapled a photocopy of my birth certificate to that page, hoping it would distract Iraqi customs officers. But mentally I was preparing to hitchhike two hours back to Amman from the Iraqi border.
Just as I feared, the deception failed. Fortunately, our experienced van driver knew that a bribe of 30,000 Iraqi dinars would be enough. Yes. I repaid our smart driver $ 10 in U.S. currency and thanked him.
During my three weeks in Iraq – I returned home less than three weeks before the Shock and Awe bombing and US troop invasion – I developed a lasting friendship with my assigned roommate, Ed, of northern New York, who has been trying to divert attention for years. the public on the exponential growth of the U.S. campaign of targeted drone attacks. (A campaign significantly escalated by President Obama to avoid the political cost to troop victims.)
Ed, along with 15 other members of the joint delegation of Voices in the Wild and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, remained in Baghdad through bombing and invasion, hidden in the basement of the hotel.
Ed and I have corresponded constantly ever since. I documented one part of our exchange, during the later season of the upcoming national crisis, this one during Advent, where I ended Ed’s note with: “There is agony in the air and we must listen to the sounds of angelic wings. ”
To which Ed replied, “Nor, alas, do we dare neglect waving devil’s tails.”
Birth as a ‘passive symbol’
According to the US Supreme Court (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984), the traditional scene of the nativity scene in the courthouse shown on Christmas has become a “passive symbol”. In a case that supports a 40-year-old tradition in Pawtucket, RI, of setting up a city-sponsored Christmas exhibit (which included Santa Claus), Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that it “breeds the spirit of friendship” and “serves the commercial interests” of retailers. .
“When the agony is in the air, we must listen to the sound of angel’s wings and the beating of devil’s tails. Each provides an essential context for the interpretation of the other. ”
The hint of Advent and Christmas is this: when the agony is in the air, we must listen to the sound of angel wings and the beating of devil’s tails. Each provides an essential context for the interpretation of the other.
The Advent announcement warns of trouble. Most in the community of believers prefer the charm of the Christmas holidays rather than its discussion. We read the story of the Nativity with bells, roasted chestnuts and the merry Saint Nick (whose story of a Middle Eastern bishop from the fourth century is known for anonymously giving to the poor without first checking to see if they were naughty or nice).
We imagine the “bandages” in which the baby Jesus was wrapped coming from Neiman Marcus; and another miracle, this one after the birth: “he didn’t cry” – apparently a Christmas song written by a man.
We are led to believe that Jesus does not disturb. That is why we are covering up the angelic proclamation of heavenly good news, which for many in the characters of the Nativity begins with this warning: “Do not be afraid.”
Because a lot could be feared. King Herod, in particular, was so threatened by the briefing of the Wise Men that he launched a mission of his assassination detachment to Bethlehem.
This is not ‘sleeping in heavenly peace’
Contrary to the poem’s claim, Christmas is not “sleeping in heavenly peace”, but a disturbing re-reading of the covenant of creation. What was previously assumed to be “law and order” is revealed because of the facade of injustice that really was (and is). There is turbulence in the sign of birth.
Advent brings the beginning of Mary’s Magnificat, her fiery hymns of praise recorded in Luke 1 – scattering the proud, overthrowing the mighty, the ascension of the lowly – signaling a bulwark in a land of enmity.
Craig Greenfield explains: “During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in the church was banned because of its incendiary verses. On the last day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, demanded that this poem be read in all places where the British flag was flown. “
And this: “During the 1980s, the Guatemalan government considered the ideas raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s special care for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.”
“The chorus of Advent is that every heart of Herod is exposed and beaten like devil’s tails.”
And this: “The Junta (1976) in Argentina banned Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Missing expressed her words on posters in the main square.”
The chorus of Advent is that every heart of Herod is exposed and beaten like devil’s tails, enraged by the rebellious proclamation of birth. Every pharaoh, every Caesar is informed. But they will not pass without a fight.
Which is why the earthly quarrel mobilizes the attention of heaven. The promise of creation has neither disappeared nor been suppressed. The Genesis promise awaits the conclusion of Revelation.
This is the gospel revelation of the people of faith: The storm is still raging, and we are on ships that leak water surpassed by threatening winds and sudden waves. But there is a lull. Angels are still introducing their message with “do not be afraid”, because faith is a risky business, and devils are still lurking in the earth.
Yet the prophet’s claim (Isaiah 40: 5) – echoed in Luke’s translation (3: 6) – is that “every body shall see the salvation of our God.” And John Revelation (11:15) claims this foretold future, when “the kingdom of the world became the kingdom of our God.”
“Angel wings and devil’s tails often appear at the same time in the development of history.”
Much empirical evidence disputes these claims. People of faith insist on the opposite and, in fact, take the risks of living in accordance with a completely different vision, a vision that brings us into conflict with the current (dis) order.
Angel wings and devil’s tails often appear at the same time in the development of history.
In the end, the Christmas festivities are not sweet. It is a self-confidence that keeps the hearts of all who continue to praise in the way of Mary, with the blessed vision that is at the core of Jesus ’sermon on the mountain, even faced with a constant threat.
Sing, children, regardless of the caliber or tone of your voice, in tune or off. For God is more obsessed with the torment of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven.
Ken Sehested is the curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the crossroads of spiritual formation and prophetic action.
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