Christmas & the Holy Innocents: On Shouting “Fire” in Church
David R. Weiss – January 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #5 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Maybe your church, like mine, seized on the Sunday following Christmas to sing an extra dose of Christmas carols, sort of a communal self-reward for having delayed our gratification throughout the season of Advent. I appreciated the chance to air out my holiday lungs on some favorite (and a couple new-to-me) songs as much as the next person. But I did have to hold back on the impulse to stand up and holler, “Fire!” in the sanctuary. I succeeded. But I’m not sure that was the right choice.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, which recalls the infant boys slaughtered by King Herod in his paranoid—and failed—attempt to remove the threat he believed Jesus posed to imperial power, falls on December 28, meaning it’s almost always elided by our preference for Christmas cheer. I consider this an instance of systemic liturgical injustice: an important feast gets squeezed out of our awareness because we’ve been so impatient (all Advent) to celebrate Christmas, and now we have only twelve days to do our celebrating (in song, sermon, liturgy) before the liturgical calendar rushes us on into Epiphany. This year, in fact, we only get ONE Christmas Sunday—how dare we spend it contemplating the Holy Innocents.
Perhaps there was a time past when church was so much part of our daily life that we could sufficiently celebrate Christmas on the other eleven days and set aside the fourth day to pause and contemplate the lives taken in effort to suppress Christmas itself. But today, between Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and then “getting back to work,” we have no time to pause for lives lost. Which is why I was so tempted to holler, “Fire!” Because pause we must.
In Matthew’s Gospel the Holy Innocents are those targeted by empire in an attempt to protect imperial power and to prevent the rise of any person who might propose a different way of being in the world. The story makes Herod the villain (and I’m hardly defending him!), but the truth in Matthew’s tale is that the slaughter of innocents is, in fact, business as usual for empire. We see it today—most poignantly on our southern border, but no less in the way that mass incarceration targets black communities or the way that low-intensity warfare targets civilians around the globe. And on and on. Empire today (think multinational corporations as well as political leaders) hesitates no more than Herod at protecting its power and quashing even potential threats. There are a multitude of holy innocents in our world.
But in a season of climate change, no one is more innocent than the creatures whose fate it has been to share the planet … with us. The animal kingdom has always taken its chances on continents drifting, climate shifting, and such. Even apart from human impact, no animal species is guaranteed a free ride. But between the speed to which we’ve accelerated climate change and the extent to which we’ve remade the planet to better consume it, animals are under threat today as never before. So much so that we Christians ought to be rising in our pews and hollering, “Fire!” in one holy chorus of anguish and alarm.
Consider the reports coming in from across the globe. In just the last 44 years (1970-2014) the worldwide population of animals plummeted by nearly 60%; in tropical regions the population loss reached almost 90%. During the same time period, freshwater fish populations fell by 83%. Another study found flying insects down by 76% in German nature preserves over 27 years. Another one charted a recent 10-year period in New Mexico during which bird populations fell by 73%. And another reported a 98%(!) loss of bugs in the Puerto Rican rainforest over 40 years. Some suggest we are perched precipitously at the beginning of “the Sixth Extinction”—although this one would be the first to have human agency as the driving factor. But regardless of whether whole species go extinct or merely find themselves genetically maimed by sheer loss of numbers and diversity, it is minimally honest to speak of a wave of ‘biological annihilation” sweeping the planet. Almost all of it due to human impacts (consumption, land use, climate change, pollution, etc.).
Still, on December 26, nearly every news source cheerfully reported U.S. holiday spending up by 5.1% in 2018 If that doesn’t shout, “Joy to the World,” I don’t know what does. Except, on a finite planet, already stretched past the breaking point that isn’t good news. It’s the bleak affirmation that the slaughter of holy innocents—driven by a commitment to preserve one way of life at the expense of countless others—continues undeterred and on a scale even Herod could not hope to achieve. We are empire.
Those who see this, need to start crying “Fire!” in the sanctuary. We need to do more, of course. But we cannot do less. And the longer we insist on keeping our good decorum during worship the longer we render ourselves incapable of the deeper changes that are necessary if we wish even to blunt the brute force of climate change and planetary collapse now just decades away.
Lest we presume this is “on us” as individual consumers, the truth is that the changes most urgently needed to stop this slaughter of holy innocents are at the level of industrial agriculture, corporate boardrooms, and national and international politics. But change in those arenas can—and must—come rushing upward from below. And that upward rush will only come if and when we take charge of our own lives—personally and communally as Transition Movement thinking suggests. AND—as we lay claim to the emotional-psychic-spiritual energy that owns the depth of loss burgeoning around us … even during the Christmas season—perhaps especially during the Christmas season.
I’m not taking cheap shots at Christmas. Before long the apocalyptic character of climate change will capture so much of our attention that any worship at all that does not acknowledge it will be simply irrelevant. It’s time that we look at every liturgical season, every lectionary text, every familiar worship theme and image, and ask ourselves how it might nurture the imagination to weep for creation, or to defend it, or to alter our lives so as live more nearly in balance, or to face down the powers and principalities that sell slaughter these days. And I simply think the Feast of the Holy Innocents is too powerful a moment to pass over in silence because we’d rather sing carols.
Earth’s creatures are dying. At an unfathomable rate. Because of human sin. And their deaths foreshadow the world we are preparing for our grandchildren. That world is rushing at us, starting yesterday. The very least we can do is holler, “Fire!” And we may be surprised at what more we’re capable of, once that word crosses our lips.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Matthew 2:1-18. Many question the historicity of the slaughter; there is no independent record of it outside this single biblical passage. It’s possible Matthew fashioned the tale as one strategy among others to show Jesus as a “new Moses” (compare Exodus 1:15-2:10). However, the symbolic importance of the Holy Innocents does not hinge on their historicity but on their place in Matthew’s gospel narrative.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. www.pulitzer.org/winners/elizabeth-kolbert.
The phrase appears to have been coined by Paul Ehrlich. www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/30/E6089.full.pdf.
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