Some days get lost in the shuffle. Days like the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
While some of us return to work and return unwanted gifts and continue pretending we’ll start resolutions next week, the historic Church has chosen this week (various branches observe it on different days) to remember the innocent lives lost around the nativity of Jesus.
In the story that has led to candlelight worship and caroling and God With Us, there is a tragic chapter. The local puppet king is not thrilled that a rumored new king has been born. New kings and claims to the throne are a threat to his way of life.
So he does what empires do and destroys those who might weaken his image, wealth, and prominence. And he does it without any regard to collateral damage. Herod has all the boys in and around Bethlehem murdered. Anyone 2 years and under is killed.
The complete and utter agony of it all. The pain of mothers who have nursing babies torn from their arms. The grief of fathers who were just helping guide first steps. The lives extinguished. The long hoped for and dearly loved, gone in act of raw evil carried out by petty, powerful men and their complicit followers.
The Church asks us to remember.
And in our remembering, we are brought face to face with the reality that the way of Jesus is a threat to empire. It is a threat to any who hold or achieve power through corruption or violence.
We remember that the birth of Jesus is not just a cute story we tell before exchanging gifts. It is inherently political. It points to a different and better Kingdom. One without backroom deals or borders or bombs and one where the King serves rather than demands, loves rather than fears, dies rather than kills.
The way of Jesus and the way of empire are incompatible. They are opposites.
Our struggle is empires didn’t fade out with Herod or Rome. They operate in our world with impunity, gripping power and trampling others in the name of “the greater good.” The way of empire is seen in our political structure, for certain, but also shows up in our homes and ethics and churches.
Sure, we’d never condone the mass murder of children but the values and motivations of empire appear long before any blood is spilled. Empire quietly shapes our why and our what and quickly deviates from the way of Jesus.
When those unlike us automatically become enemies. When we are willing, as one pastor put it, to leave bodies behind the bus. When we ignore the plight of the desperate. When we believe the myth of scarcity over the abundance of grace. We are on the path of empire.
When the old or young or different or messy are pushed aside. When folks chase power and prestige at nearly any cost. When we are more machine than human. More warrior than healer. We are more like Herod than the baby he feared.
We see threats around every corner. We cling to comfort. We look out for number one. We take short cuts to get to or remain at the top.
But the way of Jesus is down. Is as vulnerable as a newborn. Is as slow as a child learning to walk, then read, then grow into an adult. It washes feet and welcomes children. It is not self-seeking, even when seeking self might lead to more privilege or prowess or influence.
We can pray and evangelize and build cathedrals and sing the songs and still be caught in the web of empire. It is sticky because it is practical. It get results, pads resumes, and keeps us fed. It convinces us we are the chosen ones. We are the rightful leaders, rulers, party, church, or whatever.
Which of course is a lie, a scheme to help us sleep at night. An end to justify any awful means.
Ultimately we have a choice: We can reflect Herod or Jesus. We can follow the slaughterer of toddlers or the Prince of Peace.
In our workplaces and worship centers and politics and boardrooms and around our dinner tables. We have to decide which kind of kingdom we want and which kind of king we follow. We have to decide if we will abandon our claims to the throne. The martyrdom of these children, and the victims of any and all empires from then till now, ask us to pick a side, to choose a way forward.
May we remember the Holy Innocents. May their deaths redirect our minds and hearts from the things of empire to the things of God. May we be repulsed by the way of Herod in all its forms. And may we be captivated by the way of the helpless babe, laid in a manger.