Speaking to the Soul: Holy Innocents

Two Jews, three opinions… that’s the old saying. Over the years it has been adapted to be two Anglicans…, two lawyers…, or two of just about anything else. One of the core features of being human is having an opinion.

Many Christians remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents on December 27th, others on December 28th, still others on December 29th, and others still on January 10th. It is likely that none of these dates is correct, but everybody has an opinion.

The story is that Herod, the king of the Jews, was so insecure in his position that when he heard about Jesus — a newborn king — he tried to kill him. Kings and Caesars were short-lived in those days, so it is not surprising that Herod was sensitive about his position. According to the story, it was the magi, the wise men, who alerted Herod to the presence of a new king. Herod was smart, though. He didn’t reveal his plans to the magi. He told them that he wanted to worship the new king too, and he asked them to tell him when they found him. The magi were also pretty smart and they pretended to go along with Herod’s plan, but they went back to their homes by a different route and ignored Herod. This made Herod mad. He was the king, after all. So, instead of continuing to look for this one child. he killed all of them.

It is a horrible story which really is hard to believe, and some people don’t believe that it happened at all. It’s their opinion.There is the canonical account in Matthew 2, that is sufficient historical verification for some. Though, there is also this from the Protevangelium of James:

“And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under…”

And this from the secular writer Macrobius in the early 5th century:

“When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”

There is, however, nothing from Josephus or others, leading some to doubt whether or not 14,000 children really were killed on that day, as the Greeks say. Or, was it  64,000, according to the Syrians? Everyone has an opinion. Since Bethlehem was a small town of about 1000 it is likely that far fewer would have been killed, maybe 15 or 20, assuming it happened at all.

What we do know is that Herod killed his sons, and a wife, and… well, a lot of people. Given our human predisposition to form opinions, and apparently to exaggerate, it seems to me like two or more stories sort of gelled into this tale of horror which we remember today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or… Opinions.

There is hardly a word in the Bible that is not surrounded by questions. Over the centuries, scholars have clarified a lot of things; Discoveries have been made, texts deciphered. We have our opinions about the rest, but a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Here is the question I’d like to put to us for Holy Innocents Day:  How much longer will we be killing the innocent for the sake of our empires? How many more little boys like Aylan Kurdi have to wash up on the shore before we stop sacrificing children to the false God that says there is room for me, but not for you? How many more times must Trayvon Martin be gunned down in cold blood? How many more classrooms will become a killing field?

Look, Herod wasn’t that different from those who went before him or those who would come after. We have been sacrificing, and scapegoating, others since Cain was expelled from his community, a sacrifice for the peace of the others. History is littered with children being buried in the foundations of buildings, sacrificed on altars, and generally given over to the spirit of Molech.

Molech (Moloch) is the name of an ancient God which demanded the lives of first-born children. Where did we get this idea that children should be sacrificed? Again, there are opinions, but a lot of people blame God. It’s right there in Micah:

“Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

After all, other people worshiped other gods by sacrificing their children. It must have seemed reasonable to the Children of Israel that they could get back in good with Yahweh if they sacrificed their first-born children too.

It is easy to think that ancient people were more primitive than we are today. We blame them for their sacrifices, their brutish ways. We would never do that. We are more sophisticated. It’s the 21st century, after all, we have a space station and The Kardashians. Yet we have to close out another year in which it is more dangerous to be a preschooler than a police officer. That says something about what we worship and who our king really is.

Molech is a play on the Hebrew word for king, Melek. Thus, Molech… sacrificing to Molech… is to sacrifice to whatever is your own king, the thing you worship. We have been giving our children over to the violence of the world, to Molech,  at such a rate that most of us have grown into the kinds of adults who willingly sacrifice ourselves. Molech and Herod are no longer needed. We sacrifice ourselves to the Gods of success, wealth, and the American Dream… all of which only demand more, and never give us the love we actually crave. And then, when there’s nothing left of us, we sacrifice the next generation.

Here’s the good news:  We don’t have to live like that. One sacrifice has been made, once for all. The word became flesh, it dwelt among us, and in solidarity with humanity, Jesus took on the cosmic violence that had been our inheritance.  The Christmas miracle is that the Gods of Molech — the kingdoms and empires that gave us sacrifice to false Gods, the powers and principles which once ruled over us with hot iron fists — are not in power anymore. There is a new king in town, and his reign is a reign of love, and it will never end.

While he was here Jesus showed us what his new kingdom should look like. What will it take for us to step back from Molech, and into the light of God?

Linda McMillan lives in China

Image: Moloch By Charles Foster [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons

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