Children. That horrible day in and around Bethlehem when Herod's few armed men killed untold number of unarmed children. Innocents, we call them. Of Latin origin, meaning "harmless." Harmless, innocents. Children. Executed by sanctioned and unrestrained force.
The scriptures liken the sorrow of their unjust and painful deaths to Rachel's weeping, refusing to be consoled for her children; the sorrow of brute Assyrian force exiling the tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It is an emotional parallel, not necessarily a factually accurate one. But that's the thing about sorrow such as this. For all the details, it all comes down to lives taken with no justification â€” as though there were ever justification for taking a human life. These children, these innocents martyred because one ruler, and his ways of unchecked power and personal control, were threatened. Threatened by a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
It seems absurd. Unbelievable. Far-fetched. Except that the bloodied streets of Bethlehem bear haunting parallel to the streets of Sanford, Florida. The school houses of that little town of which we sing "how still we see thee lie," painfully similar to those now eerily still
classrooms in Peshawar, Pakistan. The storehouses of Jerusalem's nearest suburb, o, so much like St. Louis' Ferguson, or New York's Staten Island. Where atrocities were committed by a few and certainly not the honorable many. In Bethlehem as in Brooklyn, where two of those honorable many lost their lives just as innocently and unjustly. And then there is the Holy Family's flight to Egypt. Much like families fleeing Central American violence, or violence in Africa, or the Middle East. If only these were received today with welcome and respect due Mary and Joseph and their newborn babe seeking safety from and peace in their native land. Rachel's weeping is heard not only in Ramah, but all around the word and in far too many generations. Where evil. And prejudice. And violence. And death. Of all senseless sorts. Are sorrowfully bleak.
In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
Christina Georgina Rossetti penned this poem for
Scribner's Monthly shortly before a near fatal attack of Graves Disease in 1872. She must have imagined snow, as that year remains the rainiest and wettest on record over England and Wales. Perhaps that is what is so unsettling in the opening verse of the poem. Though the tableau has the makings of an imagined beauty, we are not permitted to feel comforted by it. Snow on snow on snow is treacherous, impassable. Water like stone is perilous. Earth hard as iron. Frosty wind made moan. Midwinter is not still content. But bleak. Bleak, she must have felt then. Bleak, it must have been in Bethlehem for all those mothers and fathers who had lost children in Herod's killing spree. And for Mary and Joseph who flee. Bleak, for so many now.
One thing brings a flicker of hope: God sees such bleakness, and does not turn away from it. But, enters into it. A stable. Manger trough. Enters our sorrows in Jesus, our brother. Born among the poor. As one under oppression. God's response to bleakness is not to look the other way. It is to make clear that our own cry and thirst for justice is God's own desire. God's response to bleakness is not to utter divisive words or to take up arms. But to offer grace-filled words and outstretched arms. To the estranged and dying. To the widow and widower.
To the outcast and despised. Even to the one who would betray him. Even to the point of stretching out his arms on a cross.
God's response to bleakness is not to abandon humanity or to obliterate humanity, but to come among humanity. To dwell in us. To redeem us. And to offer a way of life and healing, and reconciliation. Life and healing, and reconciliation and peace which crush evil, crush hell itself underfoot. Life and healing, and reconciliation and peace, which offer a way forward when all else looks backward.
It is no easy task, but who else will broach conversations deemed un-broachable, who else will eat with adversaries and sinners, be crucified with criminals, give for others without regard to merit, or what one might receive in return? It is not easy task. But it does work. Scripture tells us that one of these brute takers of these children's life â€” at least one Centurion â€” would stand at the foot of the cross, confessing: truly, this is the son of God.
Truly, this way of humility and seeking the wellbeing of all, even those considered adversaries; truly, this way of giving and forgiving, is the way of the kingdom. The
kingdom of heaven. Come near to earth. The kingdom of peace. When he comes to reign.
Heaven cannot hold him,
nor earth sustain;
heav'n and earth shall flee away
when he comes to reign;
in the bleak midwinter
a stable place sufficed
the Lord God almighty,
It is no accident that Christ's reign of peace begins not in a royal palace, but in a humble place â€” as close to humanity as God can get; as close to the ground, to the soil from which humanity was first shaped. For this reign of peace beginning in this humble place is a re-shaping, a restoration of humanity to humanity; restoration of dignity to human nature. Which Herod and his ways held in no regard.
But here, here in this place of humble birth, here where dirt meets dirt, where creation meets new creation, where flesh cradles flesh, where heaven meets earth and earth meets heaven â€” here we receive a glimpse not simply of God's redemption, but our place in it: gathered at this throne of righteousness and peace.
For if shepherds come from their muddy fields, to this manger trough, we come, too. If Magi from afar, travel through dusty dessert lands, and kneel down in the dirt before the newborn king of all the newborn, we kneel there, too. If Angels from on high bend near to the earth, we gather there, too. Gather there as we are. With all that we are. With hearts opened by God's very own love.
Love, which brings healing from brokenness. Profound love that comforts those whose tears are many, and whose sighs are too deep for words. Love that is stronger than death, love that is life. The life of these children, life of all children, life of all people: See what love God has given us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are. Bearing God's own heart as our own, and the light and the life of the whole world.
What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man
I would do my part;
yet what I can give himâ€”
give my heart.
Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1830-1894
Jared R. Stahler
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York