First Sunday of Christmas Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
December 27th, 2019 The Reverend John Zachary Flack
[Audio file follows text]
On Christmas morning, I told a story about St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval master and great doctor of Christian theology. I am sorry to say that I messed up a number of things in the story, which happens sometimes when you are absolutely sure of your memory: memory is both vivid and unreliable. St. Thomas did not receive a vision of God on his donkey—he rode into a branch, and that blow killed him over a few days. He did once have a vision of Christ while celebrating the Eucharist, which led him to decide never to write any theology again—and that resolution did last, but only for a while. Apparently he died dictating a commentary on the Song of Songs. All of that makes me feel very embarrassed and sorry, and I have revisited my memory, which tells me that I learned something contrary to fact, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the facts on Christmas morning—about Thomas Aquinas at least.
I still think contemplations helps us sort the real from the false, and that, at a certain level, contemplation and adoration are all that we can do when we think about God. Nevertheless, So I’ve made sure that I checked footnotes in order to tell you the story of another saint, Saint Cyprian, martyr of Africa, who died of a beheading, following this trial, which happened the 13th of September 258, which was recorded and preserved:
Galerius Maximus: "Are you Thascius Cyprianus?" Cyprian: "I am." Galerius: "The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites.” Cyprian: "I refuse." Galerius: "Take heed for yourself." Cyprian: "Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed." Galerius, after briefly conferring with his judicial council, with much reluctance pronounced the following sentence: "You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors ... have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood." He then read the sentence of the court from a written tablet: "It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword." Cyprian: "Thanks be to God.”
All of this is as true as history can be: there’s documentation everywhere. Cyprian is often the kind of person that comes to mind when we think of a martyr: a bishop, a saint, someone with a great story, and a gruesome death at the hand of the state. Through his letters and tracts we have a window into his mind, not merely a legend of memory. He was a pastor, a preacher, a bishop, and above all a witness to Christ, which is what the word martyr means. He fits the bill, and the only thing that’s surprising about it all is that there’s no movie about him.
We don’t think of the Holy Innocents, all those little boys, who were slaughtered at the behest of a raging king as martyrs. In truth, we don’t think much about this story at all—because as joyous and wonderful as the Christmas story is, so is this story hard and evil. There are a lot of hard stories in Scripture. The whole book of Joshua is hard. The story of the flood is hard. The crucifixion stories are hard. The moments when Jesus says that his mother and his brothers and sisters are those who hear the Word of God and do it, and ignores Mary, the woman who heard the angel speak to her—that’s a hard passage. But this story, the story of the Holy Innocents, is as hard to read as anything in or out of scripture: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time he learned from the wise men.”
Or, as the Coventry Carol puts it:
Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
"Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
The children killed, the lullabies break in their mothers’ mouths. The clank of swords and spears, the rattle of harness. All it takes is the order of a raging king.
Or simply the working the states. Note how cool the governor who ordered Cyprian’s execution was: he had a script, he followed the law, he ordered a proper trial and documented the proceedings. It was all very civilized. He even gave Cyprian an opportunity to change his mind. All Cyprian had to do was burn a little incense. Most of his flock just a decade or so before had done it. The penalty to refuse was well-known: this was orderly, calm, almost a gentlemanly. But the same thing happened: the sounds of sword and armor, and blood on on the ground. There are only two differences: one is that we remember Cyprian’s name, and the second is that Cyprian was older and could speak for himself.
Some truths are too horrible to contemplate, but remain true nonetheless. Biblical commentators agree there is no other proof extant that this massacre happened, other than the witness we have in Matthew. Some therefore conclude the story is ahistorical. I suppose they’re probably right, given the lack of attestation for a bright moving star in the heavens. But everyone also agrees Bethlehem was a tiny town, and perhaps had 10 or 15 two-year-olds at a given time, and in those days, the killing of 10 or 15 children was not remarkable, and it was especially not remarkable if it happened in a tiny village, which would never have become anything at all if Jesus had not been born there. If such a massacre occured, we should not be surprised that no one ever mentioned it. Likewise, Egypt was a common place for Judeans like Jesus and his family to flee in times of trouble—it would not be strange for his family to seek refuge there for a while. It happened quite a bit. So although there are no other witnesses to this story, none of it strange. It was all too common.
And it is common still. The newspaper the Guardian ran a story this past week, counting the number of mass shootings in the United States. There were “41 incidents claiming 211 lives in 2019 even as the overall US homicide rated dropped.” It’s the highest number of mass shootings in a year on record. But if the shooting of 20 elementary kids in Newton didn’t change our collective minds about guns, it’s hard to know what will. And never mind about Pol Pot, Stalin, the purge of the American West, the Armenian genocide, and the Shoah, the echoes of which we see before our very eyes this morning. You see, now, how the killing of a handful of children is nothing big, nothing remarkable. These things happen all the time in this world. The kings rage. The innocent are slaughtered. Sometimes there’s progress. Usually we just keep going.
Except for Matthew. Matthew remembered to include them. They were not insignificant to him. They were both signs and witnesses, and beloved children of God. They were signs that world is dark and full of sin, but that Jesus had come to overturn it. They were witnesses of the lashing of the raging king, but also the vulnerability and weakness of the world’s savior, a babe just like them. And they were also beloved, because even Scripture cried out for their loss. Later commentators would say that the children’s smallness signifies the humility of martyrs—that the martyrs, the witnesses to Christ, by losing their lives pointed to something true and beautiful that no power in this world can ever match: the love of God for this world in Christ Jesus.
Herod sat in his palace, in all his pomp and power, backed by the Roman emperor and all the emperor’s power. He had scribes and scholars, spies and servants. And yet he had no peace—his mind brooded constantly on threats and schemes. A little child could undo him completely. The martyrs, from Stephen to Cyprian, to all those laying down their lives today, presently unknown, whose names we may never know, all point us to something greater than whatever power this world can hold. That’s why we remember them, and that’s why we tell their stories: to remind one another that some things are worth losing your life over, that some things are more precious than fame or notoriety, wealth and glory.
There’s a line in Harry Potter in which dead Dumbledore is talking to Harry and says, “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.” And in this time of miraculous birth, and the exultation of welcoming a child, there are silences where joy might be, in memory of children lost in the womb, and children never conceived. But nevertheless, death does not have the final word. Love does, love in silence of the resurrection and the greeting of the risen Lord to his disciples, a greeting which says that love is stronger than death.