Sermon for Holy Innocents 2008
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 28th December
“Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.” Matthew 2:18
Why should she be comforted? The worst possible thing imaginable has happened and there is no sense and no explanation and no reason, why should the mother be comforted?
The story would, of course, be left out if it was being written today. The spin doctors would look at it and say, ‘This won’t do, our public wouldn’t like this’. So there would be news management, there would be magazine features on the Magi, ‘Tell me, how did you feel about making this journey? Where was the best accommodation on the way?’ Maybe a press conference with one of them about the political situation as they saw it. Some biographical background material, a colour piece, the sort of things that would go down well with chat show hosts.
Spin doctors would not like to story of the murder of the Innocents. It doesn’t create a pleasant feeling, it cannot be rationalised, it is a brutal, evil, horrifying event that doesn’t fit in with the cuddly quality of the Christmas story as it is now presented.
Even Christians try to present Christmas in soft and gentle terms. People don’t want nasty bits in their Christmas story, they don’t want nails, and a spear and a cross. People want a safe Jesus; they want a safe story about a nice little baby.
Spinning a story, telling only the good bits so as not to alarm or displease people works for a while, but if you can fool some of the people some of the time, the one thing you can’t do is to fool all of the people all of the time. People soon realize that there is more to the truth than what they are being told. Then when they realize that they have been told a partial truth, they begin to feel that everything they have been told is only partial truth. They become distrustful, they become cynical, they become disinterested in all stories because they think that lies are being told everywhere.
If you want to see the consequences of this process, look at what has happened at elections in various parts of Europe. People have lost confidence in those who have spun so many stories; they are attracted by groups who offer them simple answers. The rise of the Far Right political parties comes not from a sudden conversion of voters to racist policies, but from a deep rooted distrust of the political establishment: if they will not tell the whole truth about some things, then what other things might they be hiding?
People need to be told the truth, however unpalatable, because only in telling the truth can there be trust and confidence, only in the truth do you find life as it really is.
The Church needs to tell the full story of Jesus, not just the pleasant bits, because the whole point of the Christmas story is that God comes to share in the full experience of human life. When the Church fails to tell the truth, it fails in its mission to be witnesses to Christ. People who look for meaning and purpose at times when they are going through awful experiences find no comfort in a Church that has so little confidence in the story of Jesus that it edits out all the difficult bits.
Saint Matthew’s reference to the mothers who refuse to be comforted because their children are no more is not an easy part of the Bible to read, but it is rooted deeply in our human experience. There are moments when life is utterly desolate, when it is utterly meaningless, moments of absolute darkness, and to accept human words of comfort at such moments would be to shy away from the full reality of what has taken place. Words are simply inadequate to meet some realities, Rachel refuses to be comforted because being comforted would mean turning away from the horror, the horror that must be faced.
Perhaps, if we really wanted to tell people Good News at Christmas, we would tell them not about the God who is with us as the shepherds come down to Bethlehem, but about the God who is with us as Herod’s men go out to commit their heinous crimes. We can all cope with the good and happy moments, what we need to know is that God is still there with us in the unspeakable moments, the moments in which there is no comfort to be found.
Telling part of the truth does no-one any favours. We don’t want a God who only understands part of our life, we need a God who is found in the fullness of truth and in the fullness of life.
“Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted”. We need a God who is with us in such moments – it is in Jesus that we find that God.
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