In church this morning, we read a part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:13-23) that doesn’t often make our pageants: the massacre of the all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem by King Herod. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph flee to Egypt. Jesus begins his life as a refugee in Africa. It is an event that is remembered as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
It is a deeply disturbing and troubling story, particularly to a culture that has come to associate Christmas with shepherds, wise men, the odd sugarplum fairy, and lots and lots of presents. It is easier to think about those things than it is to think about soldiers marching through the streets of Bethlehem looking for children to kill.
But by including this story in his telling of the Christmas story, I think Matthew is doing an important thing: he is telling the truth. The Christmas story contains this brutal and awful bit because the world that Jesus was born into really could be brutal and awful. Our world is no different, whether it is in violence in the Central African Republic, Syria, or South Sudan, or the more hidden brutality of children who go to bed hungry, people without a home at night, or any of the number of social problems in our society.
Christians are people who tell the truth. Christians are people who describe the world around them honestly, praising and rejoicing at appropriate times but also frankly confronting the difficult and challenging parts of our lives. The church is a community of truth-tellers.
I thought about this when I read about what Bishop Hilary Garang of Malakal, South Sudan told the BBC the other day: this violence is not right; we need mature leaders who are capable of settling their differences without resorting to violence. That is a moment of truth, particularly when political leaders are going around saying that their enemies have to be eliminated.
But you don’t have to go all the way to South Sudan to tell the truth. This week, Rowan Williams—who is now, inter alia, the patron of a food-bank organization—criticized the government for its comments about people who seek help from food banks. He said, in part:
It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers – but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.
In austerity Britain, where the need for food banks has exploded in recent years, this is simply telling the truth—even and especially if it makes those in power uncomfortable.
Christian truth-telling begins with ourselves. That is why our services have times of confession when we can honestly assess our own lives and hear the true words of forgiveness and absolution. Churches are places where when people ask us, “How are you?” we don’t have to feel pressured to say, “Oh, just fine,” but can say, “Well, actually things aren’t going so well. Will you pray with me?” That the church isn’t always this place is an indictment of the church that we should face honestly.
There really is a lot of hope and peace and love and joy in the Christmas story—just as there is in the world. But the Massacre of the Holy Innocents reminds us that that is not all there is. Christians are people who honestly face both the joys and the challenges of this world, who tell the truth about them, and who work to bring about God’s peace for our communities and this world.