Monday, December 29, 2014

"Sing lullaby" Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Coventry Cathedral, 28th December 2014

I’m must have been about 6 when I first opened my father’s copy of the Oxford Book of Carols and started trying to pick out tunes on the piano…and I hadn’t got very far in the book when I stopped to fall in love, from the first time I heard it, with number 22, the Coventry Carol. That such a beautiful haunting lullaby could have its roots in the violence of the slaughter of the innocents seemed extra-ordinary, and somehow the carol and an early visit here to this Cathedral entwined themselves in my memory so that the ruins of the old Cathedral became, in my imagination, the backdrop for the act of violence and terror which we remember today.

It’s a sudden change of tone, isn’t it...One moment we are celebrating the birth of Our Lord and Saviour and all is golden splendour, angel fanfares and great joy – and then, overnight, the mood changes. Cradle and grave come very close, as we remember those whom the early church called the Companions of Christ, Stephen, first Christian martyr, John the Evangelist – and, today, the Holy Innocents. The light of lights has dawned, but the surrounding darkness is real and oppressive . Christ is born into a world of violence and pain – and though through him all things can find redemption, nonetheless the pain here and now is real, the grief overwhelming.

This year, the Spectator magazine caused some controversy by producing a striking Christmas card that showed the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, Infant – and star – set against the backdrop of a bombed out modern city. Bleak, even desolate, but surely a more honest reflection of the reality of his birth in poverty in an occupied country where mass murder was used as a way to keep order.
Christmas, you see, is complicated – and it’s when we try to oversimplify, to focus on sentimental images of mother and child, that we run the risk of losing sight of its reality. There is a poem that begins “Christmas is really for the children”, going on to explore the discrepancy between the image of Little Jesus, sweetly asleep and the fate that awaits the Son of God outside Jerusalem just 33 years later…but the signs of what is to come are there from the beginning. Christmas is SUPPOSED to be discomforting – what else can you expect when God throws in His lot with humanity, in order to redeem and transform it. It was never going to be a walk in the park.

And so a darker reality unfolds before us. Feeling threatened by some unknown king to come, Herod arrives on stage full of hatred and violence, a pantomime villain intent on real harm. If Christ is the new Adam, we have a new Cain in Herod - who dashes the skulls of the innocents against the rocks of fear and distrust. Evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing in its attempts to thwart the loving purposes of the God who comes to make his home with us.
It’s hard to deal with, isn’t it?
We’d much prefer to look away, to avoid reminders of the hard truth of human cruelty. For those toddlers in Bethlehem there is no happy ending. What Herod stole cannot be replaced…and the lament of the mothers of Jerusalem echoes through the centuries, joined today by the cries of the mothers of Peshawar and beyond. Not even the sweetest lullaby can mask the truth. These children are dead, not sleeping…
But despite the tragic fragility of life, there is resilience too. The Christ-child survives…I dont mean by this that his survival makes all the pain and bloodshed OK...indeed, his survival might seem to add to the tragic injustice if we didnt know what lay ahead for him too. Theres a carol that plots our journey well
Sing lullaby...lullaby baby now reclining sing lullaby. Angels are watching, stars are shining over the place where he is lying
Sing lullaby...lullaby baby now a sleeping...Soon will come sorrow with the morning, soon will come bitter grief and weeping
Sing lullaby....lullaby baby now a dozing....soon comes the cross the nails the piercing then in the grave at last reposing
He will go through it too. There are no shortcuts. At the foot of the cross His mother will join with her tears with those of the mothers of Bethlehem. Spared in infancy, Jesus nonetheless experiences a bloody death that he deserved no more than those baby boys. His is not a protected,sanitised route through life... That would have been no help at all. Ultimately, of course, his birth, death and resurrection are a triumphant declaration that nothing is ever lost or wasted,
That carol concludes 
Sing lullaby..lullaby is the babe awaking? Hush do not stir the infant king dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning, conquering death, its bondage breaking...
Beyond the darkness there awaits a day break we can scarcely imagine.
But nonetheless its right, I think, that Rachel refuses to be comforted...Looking towards an ultimate restoration doesn't negate the immediacy of grief.
So...what do we do with this remembrance of deep wounds that are recreated too often in the course of human history?
As for me I will hold on to the certainty that all history is God's story, the God who weeps with Rachel even as He holds her little ones in love , the one whose own body is broken, his own blood spilled for us, the one who promises to wipe all tears from our eyes.
My first Christmas as a priest I struggled with the realisation that, having placed the image of the Christ child reverently in the manger at midnight mass, I was then called to break his body at the altar, so that the first violence committed against him was at my hands. But then I looked beyond the moment to the great sweep of redemption history, pondering the miracle of love that places itself, vulnerable, in our that we might share eternal life. Cradle,cross and grave go side by side...because Christ shares the whole of our experience so that it might be redeemed.
So remember the Holy Innocents of every age, weep for them by all means, for honest lament is a part of all real relationship with God, but do not let the darkness of the world oppress you.
Remember the Holy Innocents are called the Companions of Christ and companions are those who break bread together.... And this is the bread of life,given for all. Let us come to share it.

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