|17 - Sunday After Christmas, December 30, 2012|
This Gospel of the holy family fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod’s slaughter of the Righteous Ones – our Church Tradition tells us that 14,000 infants were slaughtered by King Herod – is always read on the Sunday after Christmas. This tells us that there is a dark side to the Glory and Joy of Christmas; it is the flight to Egypt made necessary by King Herod’s order to slaughter all the male children three years old and younger. That this is read on the Sunday after Christmas tells us that this part of the Christmas story is essential to the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that it is as much a part of the Christmas story as are the shepherds and the wise men.
This is not a little disturbing, is it not, that the Gospel should include an event of such unspeakable cruelty as an essential element? But, it gives, if you will, flesh and blood to the darkness the world is in; it takes the theme of darkness out of the sentimental clouds of abstract ideas and confronts us with the gut-wrenching fact of the evil that exists in the world all around us.
Yet, we call it the “Gospel” of the Slaughter of the Righteous Ones. Where is the “Good News” in such cruelty?
Among other things, I believe the slaughter of the Righteous Ones should shake us to realize how much is at stake in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The world exists in good and evil, and the evil can be unspeakably cruel. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that the world is not supposed to exist like this. It was created “good”; it was created in light, for it was on the first day that God said, “Let there be light”. And, this light was not the light of the sun and moon. Those lights were not created until the fourth day; and yet, already on the third day, plants and herbs, which need light to grow, are growing in the fields. This light, then, was another light, a light more primordial than the sun and moon, a light even that was immaterial, spiritual, for it was the light of the Church, a light that was life-giving, a light shining in the darkness of the void that manifested the goodness, the love, the glory, and the joy of Christ, the Image of God in whom all things were made. In the Holy Spirit, it is understood in Christ’s Holy Church that this light, the first act of God’s creation, was a prophecy of the birth of God the Word in the flesh; for it is known in the Church that Christ was born of the Holy Virgin on the first day of the week.
So, the slaughter of the Righteous Ones tells us that the world exists in an unnatural condition. Existing in good and evil, the world exists in inner conflict that can only weaken it and make it sick, so that everything that comes to exist in the world exists in this profound internal schizophrenia of good and evil.
The slaughter of the Righteous Ones is carried out under the order of a man wholly given over to evil, so that King Herod becomes an image of the devil seeking to destroy the Lord who is the Light of God, in whom is the Life of the Holy Spirit, who is the Light of the world. Herod’s failure to destroy the infant Jesus is the manifestation in space-time of the Gospel proclamation of St John: “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not destroy it.”
This is what the slaughter of the Righteous Ones proclaims as an essential element in the Gospel of Christmas: that the Light of God, the True Light who is the Resurrection and the Life, the Son of God who is Himself the radiance of the Glory of the Father, of whose coming into the world the first created light on the first day was a prophecy, the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ is born of a Virgin and has become the Son of Man. He who is the very font of Goodness has come into the world that languishes in good and evil. He is the Good that the evil cannot destroy. In Him there is no darkness, there is no evil. In Him is only Light, only Goodness. And, He who is Lord of all, who is invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, eternally the same, God the Lord has been born of the Holy Virgin; He has become flesh and He now dwells among us.
In this Gospel of the slaughter of the Righteous Ones, the Christ is an infant just like those infants who are slaughtered. Christ in this Gospel is not slaughtered; but this slaughter of the infants is itself a prophetic event that points to the grief that will pierce the heart of the Blessed and Holy Theotokos on Great and Holy Friday. That is when her Son will be slaughtered as an innocent lamb at the orders of another Jewish King, Herod and the Gentile Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. It so happens that it was on Friday, also, that the Savior was conceived in the womb of the Most Blessed Virgin. This morning’s Gospel, then, points to the marvel that in their murder, these 14,000 innocent children were not just prophetic enactments of the Savior’s own crucifixion; they were partakers of it. In their slaughter, they were made, they were granted to become one with God Himself who, as Son of Man, would suffer and die in the flesh at the hands of the rulers of the world. What can this mean, then, but that they were also made, they were granted, to become partakers of Christ’s Holy Resurrection?
And so, this slaughter of the Righteous Ones is Gospel because it proclaims the triumph over evil of the Child for whom they were slaughtered. Evil does not have the last word; and in the death of our bodies in this world, however that death may occur, it is not the image of God in whom we were made that dies, it is not goodness that dies, it is not life that dies; it is death and sickness and evil that die. In that death of Christ, the world is made new. Evil dissolves away and the goodness that is inherent to the world’s primordial nature is made one in Christ with the Father who alone is Good, so that in Christ, the world is no longer good and evil, but goodness and light, life and glory.
The Church reads this Gospel, then, on the Sunday after Christmas to confess the Savior’s death and to proclaim His Holy Resurrection. More than that, to proclaim the Good News that Christ is born! God is with us! Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life! In the joy of this Good News, O sons and daughters of Eve, let us repent that we may become children of the New Eve, children of the Theotokos, of the Church, of the very Bride of Christ, born of the Spirit from above, by receiving the New Adam and uniting ourselves to Him in His death and so also in His Holy Resurrection!
Let us receive Christ, the Christ proclaimed by the Gospel of the Church of Christ! Let us not give ourselves to another Christ or to another Gospel! Do you understand why? Do you see what’s at stake?
The birth of Christ in the flesh, and the attention the Holy Scriptures give to Christ’s human ancestry, all the way back to Abraham, all the way back to Adam, and even all the way back to God the Father, tells us that it is Christ Himself who is the Gospel. Christ is not an angel, nor is He a divine messenger to teach us doctrines we memorize and believe so that we can be “saved”. Salvation is not in believing a message. Salvation is to be delivered from death, from the internal conflict that makes us profoundly sick, languishing at the core of our soul in this internal contradiction between good and evil. Salvation is to be united to Christ Himself, the real Christ, the Christ who comes from God, who is born of the Virgin Mary, the Christ who gave Himself for us and who by His birth in the flesh and death on the Cross, has called us out of this age that exists in evil.
Only this Christ can deliver us from evil. Only this Christ can penetrate all the way into the tomb of our heart and make our souls alive in God. Only this Christ can make even such evil as the slaughter of these 14,000 righteous ones to be good. “Other” Christs cannot: Christs produced out of our religious imagination, Christs presented to us in heresies, in doctrines that are not of His Holy Church. These Christs cannot save us from death because they are man-made; they are admixtures of human ideas with the Christ of the Church that weaken the Gospel proclamation of the real Christ into the trumpeting of a human ideology that uses Christ as an image for its main principle, whatever that might be.
It is in the real Christ that these innocent children who were murdered by the cruelty of Herod are venerated and honored as martyrs of Christ who proclaim by their innocence and their death the glorious Good News of the Church, which is the very body of Christ Himself proclaiming to us: “Death has been overthrown. In Christ all is made new again. For the Light of God in whom is the Life of men has come into the world, and the darkness cannot destroy it.” Indeed, the darkness is itself illumined and all who want to may come and be enlightened in the light of God that makes them alive, healthy, and good, existing in the purpose for which they were originally created, that is in accordance with the most primordial principle of their nature: for praise and worship in love and joy of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who loved us and gave Himself for us, that we might be delivered from this age of evil according to the will of God our most blessed Father. Glory to Jesus Christ! Christ is born! Most Holy Theotokos, save us! Amen.