|18 - Noel of Holy Righteous Ones, Dec 31, 2017|
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The Church has us read this morning’s Gospel that includes Herod’s evil deed of slaughtering the Holy Righteous Ones not once but several times over the course of the Feast. It is like an evangelical koan, a Gospel riddle. I don’t see how it can be solved outside the Gospel preached by the holy apostles.
St Matthew tells us that Herod’s unspeakable cruelty was foreseen by the prophet, Jeremiah. It is a terrible demonstration of the evil the LORD came to conquer at its root in the mystery of Christmas. That the prophet foresaw this event would indicate, so it seems to me, that the “slaughter of the innocents” is part of the prophetic “It is necessary that the Son of Man must suffer and rise from the dead again on the third day” (cf. Lk 24:46). In this, the “slaughter of the innocents” shows Christmas to be the beginning of Pascha, when Christ our God destroys in the flesh that He received from the Holy Virgin, death by His death. In this slaughter of the innocents, it is not the cruelty of Herod that triumphs – indeed, Herod himself would die a miserable death. It is Christ God who triumphs in our flesh and so He makes us victors over the devil, if we “put on Christ”. He is born of the Virgin precisely for the purpose of storming the lair of the devil and all his angels and all his pride, and to destroy by His death the devil who destroyed us, and to deliver us from our captivity to the devil’s power of death (Heb 2:14-15; cf. Ps 106/107:13-20) and to open the way to Eden. He destroys death by His death in our flesh. So He makes our death to be the destruction of death, if we “put on Christ.
The Church does not commemorate these infants as “innocents” but as “Holy Righteous Ones”. In this, she is telling us that they were martyrs, for they were slaughtered in witness to Christ’s ‘invasion’ of the devil’s lair. By their blood, they were baptized into Christ and so united to Him in the likeness of His death. Christ Himself is our Righteousness (I Cor 1:30); and so, united to Christ, they became Righteous Ones. “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” says Wisdom, “and there no torment shall touch them.” Moreover, Wisdom says: “In the sight of the unwise, they seemed to die, and their departure is taken for misery and their going from us to be utter destruction but they are in peace. For though they be punished in the sight of men yet is their hope full of immortality.” (Wisdom 3:1-4) It is in the Wisdom of the Church that we know these innocents as “Holy Righteous Ones”, who are, in their martyrdom, united with Christ and raised to immortality (cf. Wisdom 1:15). In the Wisdom of the Church, we see already in the slaughter of the “Holy Righteous Ones” the light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection beginning to dawn. We see the joy of the Resurrection already beginning to shine in the darkness of the weeping mothers “misery”.
Even this is given in the prophecy of Jeremiah that St Matthew says was fulfilled in their slaughter; for, the prophecy St Matthew draws from continues: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let your voice cease from weeping, your eyes from your tears, for they shall return from the land of your enemies. There shall be an abiding home for your children” (Jer 31:15 KJV = 38:15 LXX).
On the plane of world history, the land of your enemies would be Babylon, but on the plane of the Spirit, it is the realm of Hades. The prophecy of Jeremiah that St Matthew says is fulfilled in the slaughter of the Holy Righteous Ones, then, anticipates the prophecy from Isaiah that St Matthew says is fulfilled when Jesus begins his ministry after His Baptism: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. On those sitting in the region and shadow of death, a great light has dawned” (Mat 4:16).
But, when I hear in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “They shall return from the land of your enemies, there shall be an abiding home for your children,” I think immediately of what the LORD says through Ezekiel: “I am your inheritance!” (Eze 44:28) The home in which these Holy Righteous Ones will be made to abide is the LORD God Himself; and, when I see this, I think immediately of Ezekiel’s prophecy we read on Great and Holy Friday: “Behold, my people, I will raise you up from your graves and I shall put my spirit in you and you shall live, and I shall place you in your own land” – which is the Kingdom of God not in Palestine but in Heaven, whose land is not Canaan but Christ God Himself, born of the Virgin and raised from the dead.
See how this prophecy of Jeremiah opens like a door to reveal within the mystery of Christmas, of Immanuel, “God With Us!” the mysteries of Christ’s Holy Theophany and Holy Pascha! Christ’s Holy Church does not sugar coat the sorrow of death and she does not flinch from evil. We can find real healing in the Church. She is the very Body of the God-Man born of the Virgin precisely to descend into hell by means of the Cross – the Tree of Life – to destroy the devil, and so heal our wounds by His wounds, and destroy our death by His death. Christmas is the Gospel of the WORD of God who penetrates into the nothingness the world comes from in birth and falls back into in death to raise it up in Himself as a New Creation. Together with the angels’ Noel, the “slaughter of the Holy Righteous Ones proclaims the Gospel, the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven has come in the Son of God’s birth from the Virgin, and that its reign of light and life – simply by the LORD God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, even as a little Child – already pierces the darkness of hell.
The martyrdom of the Holy Righteous Ones is central to the story of the wise men; and, they were from Babylon, the historical place of Israel’s captivity to the east. Is it mere coincidence that Babylon is the backdrop of Jeremiah’s prophecy? They were astrologers, students of the stars, ancient philosophers, the equivalent of modern day scientists. Their study, then, was the cosmos: its essence, its beginning and end, its meaning and how it moves. They would therefore have been students as well of the human soul, psychologists, for the ancients understood man to be a microcosm of the cosmos. Might the wise men represent, then, be a testimony to those who study nature – both the world and the human soul – with a sober and sincere mind to see how “the heavens declare the Glory of God, the firmament shows His handiwork?” (Ps 19/18:1) And how “the earth is filled with His mercy?” (Ps 119/118:64)
The hymns of the Church for the days of the Christmas Feast remark many times on the wise men’s origin from Babylon, the place of Israel’s exile and captivity in the east, as though this means something. Scripture says that, warned by an angel of the LORD in a dream, they did not go back to Herod but went home by another way. The Holy Family escape Herod by going to Egypt, the historical place of Israel’s captivity to the west. Again from Jeremiah, we learn that simply by their presence, the idols in the temples of Egypt were toppled. If Egypt represents our captivity to the idolatry of the passions that is healed by receiving the LORD into our soul, might Babylon represent our captivity to the mesmerizing spiritualities of the world’s religions, to our fascination with astrology and its teaching that our fate is determined by astral and cosmic forces?
They were led home by another way, it says. Having been taught by a star to adore the LORD of the cosmos, how could they go back to the bondage of astrology’s determinism and the blindness of scientific knowledge? How could they not become students of Faith, of the knowledge of the LORD, the WORD of God in whom all things were made and whose image is stamped indelibly on the creation and on the human soul?
The wise men and the Holy Righteous Ones, then, form together a Gospel proclaiming our deliverance from death and every kind of cosmic determinism; for, the LORD of all has been born of the Virgin and now clothes Himself in our own flesh. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you! Christ is in you! This “Noel” of the wise men and of the Holy Righteous Ones, then, calls out to us: “Let us raise our minds on high and go to Bethlehem!” Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow the star to the Cave of your heart where real healing is found in the Life and Resurrection of Christ who is in you! Amen!