Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"A Voice was Heard in Ramah" - A Sermon for the Feast Day of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

Sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents
Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Preached at the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Texts: Jer 31:15-17, Ps 124, Matt 2:13-18

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive
in their fierce anger towards us...

By God’s grace, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph, in a dream, to flee from the wrath of a tyrant; a tyrant, who like most other tyrants in history constantly feared for the loss of power. In Herod, we meet a tyrant who feared a tiny, helpless child, a tyrant who murdered his own sons, a tyrant who in an act of paranoia was willing to drop the veil of death upon the helpless people of his own nation. But, by God’s grace, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph to take his family out of the reach of the merciless tyrant. And so our story goes: The child and his family flee under the cover of darkness into the safety of a different land, as if the very fulfillment of prophecy.

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when our enemies rose up against us;
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.

The Lord has provided the cover of safety for the holy family.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children...

Left behind, unsuspecting, many other families are torn apart by the wrath of the same tyrant -- left behind, no angel to warn them about the unthinkable horror about to fall upon them. Children are torn from the arms of their fathers and mothers and slaughtered. In one swift act of terror, the tyrant tears apart the lives of countless families. The sudden onslaught of death and its swift departure leaves a desolate and despondent people wailing from the very core of their being for the slaughter of their very flesh and blood. God had not warned them. And the hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance begins to echo hollow:

Blessed be the Lord,
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.

Rather, our hearts are crushed by the sound of Rachel weeping for her children:

She refused to be consoled,
for they are more.

By what cruel interpretive slight of hand have commentators of the ages ridiculed the cry of Rachel? For what cruel and self-indulgent purpose have we dared to utter sentiments such as the words of the fifth century bishop of Carthage, Quodvultus:

“The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Christ child makes those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation.”

By what cruel and utter madness have we dared to call these tiny victims the first martyrs of the church and written off the gutteral cry of parents destroyed by grief as the grief of those who mourn for martyrs? Give me no part of the kingdom of this Christ. Give me no part of the kingdom that theologizes the cry from Ramah as one that points to the Kingdom of God. Of what use is it to sing “Our help is in the name of the Lord” when, indeed, there is no help for these ones, nor is their help for the many silent voices lost to the purposeful silence of regimes that close their grips on power by massacring the innocent and muting the cry of Ramah throughout all the ages. By what twisted psychology do we justify the death of children and the grief of mothers as pointers to our own salvation, even the fulfillment of Scripture?

She refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.

So must we also refuse consolation.

Wise men came from the east seeking after a wonderful work that God was about to do. These wise men, holy men, in all good faith sought after a newborn king, a king that would bring peace. But they were deceived by a tyrant into revealing the vulnerability of God made human, and as such became inadvertently complicit in the ravaging of a people. They came seeking the light of the world and left in their wake the darkest night of the worst of the human condition.

During this holy time, we too seek the incarnation, God made human, the light of the world. We see his star rising in the east and we seek to follow it to where it rests. We long to do homage before the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. We seek after the light of the world and at that very moment are confronted instead by the slaughter of the innocent.


Why, when we seek a saviour, why when we seek the light of the word, are we confronted by genocide? Why are we confronted by the calculated destruction of an innocent group of people, simply for being who they are?

We seek the light and are confronted by the darkness. And we cannot, we must not, we dare not turn away. We look for the Christ and find instead innocent blood and are cut to our very core by the voice of lamentation, weeping for what cannot be returned.


It is in this horrible vision that we meet the darkness of our own souls. It is this very moment that we confront ourselves and realize that we might be Herod. And here, the possibility of our own darkness is the very reason that we need a saviour. In seeking a saviour, we encounter the very worst of human experience. And here is the purpose ro which God became human: to turn us away from the worst of what we might be and transform us into what we are meant to be, the likeness of Christ.

There are those that call this story fiction. It is simply the type of another massacre, a holy massacre. But no massacre is holy. And even if it was formed in the imagination of an evangelist we must not discredit it. If the historical record is silent about this massacre, so is it about many countless others, but do we dismiss or discredit them simply because the voice from Ramah is silent? We in our age, of all people, should know that enforced silence cannot dampen the cry of Rachel mourning her children. We know only too well... Auschwitz, Birkenau, Rwanda, and the near silence of Armenia that Rachel continues to weep for her children, and we cannot deafen our ears. These genocides are among us. This is not simply the fiction of a first century writer, it is the story of evil in the world which persists to this day. We cannot theologize away the death of innocents. It is a sin to hide these things. We must speak of them, and name them. We can only bring the darkness to light by speaking of it and acknowledging its existence. We are called to stare into the darkness and the forces of this world that draw us from the divine likeness, and speak to the darkness of humanity.

It is not the heart of God that these horrors come to pass. It will not do to say that the death of innocents as martyrs point us to the mystery of the Incarnation. It is not the heart of God that families suffer the loss of their heart and joy simply to fulfill the words of a prophet. It is the heart of God to enter into time to turn our hearts from such heresy. It is the heart of God for us to say a resounding no to such twisted nonsense. It is the heart of God to become as us so that we might be as him and not as children of the night.

God hears the cry from Ramah and will not let it be muted in silence.

c. 2003 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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