“This is no time for a child to be born,
With the Earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.”
—Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth”
The Feast of the Holy Innocents (aka Childermas or Innocents’ Day), referencing Matthew’s account of Judean King Herod’s order to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem to suppress a potential rival, was established in the fifth century BCE. Some Christian communions in the West mark the day officially on Dec. 28 or, in the East, Dec. 29.
However, the observance is largely forgotten in most congregations. You can understand why. Who wants to interrupt chirpy carols, the sight of ornamented trees and light-lit homes, and post-Christmas sales with the story of a massacre of babies?
Needless to say, few if any church Christmas pageants, with kids in bathrobes and assorted other makeshift costumes, include Matthew 2’s story. Christmas Eve candlelight services ignore this Nativity story.
It’s a party-pooper story. Certainly not appropriate for young children (as are many other stories in Scripture). Thankfully, few today remember that, in some European communities prior to the 17th century, the day began with parents spanking their children to remind them of the suffering of those infants, who — gruesome as it sounds — are considered the first martyrs.
But the church ignores this Feast day to our peril and the integrity of our proclamation.
A lesson from Iraq
In 2003, I was asked to lead what would be the final group of volunteers joining a delegation of activists present in Iraq, attempting to witness and tell a different story about realities in that mangled country — which would only be compounded by a U.S. invasion.
I was in anguish on the long flight to Amman, Jordan, and then for the first two hours — to the Iraqi border — of the 12-hour drive through the desert. Although not because of my destination. Two days before leaving, I suddenly remembered that I had an Israeli customs stamp in my passport. You can’t enter Iraq if you have such a stamp.
There was no time to get a new passport. Emergency efforts to rinse that stamp from my passport didn’t work. So I stapled a photocopy of my birth certificate on that page, hoping this would distract Iraqi customs officials. But I was mentally preparing to hitchhike the two hours back to Amman from the Iraqi border.
Just as I feared, the ruse didn’t work. Thankfully, our experienced van driver knew that a 30,000 Iraqi dinar bribe would suffice. It did. I repaid our savvy driver $10 in U.S. currency and offered profuse thanks.
During my three weeks in Iraq — I returned home less than three weeks before the “Shock and Awe” bombardment and invasion by U.S. troops — I developed an abiding friendship with my assigned roommate, Ed, from Upstate New York, who for many years has attempted to bring public attention to the exponential growth in the U.S. campaign of targeted assassination by drone warfare. (A campaign which President Obama significantly escalated, to avoid the political cost that troop casualties would cause.)
Ed, along with 15 other members of the joint Voices in the Wilderness and Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation, remained in Baghdad through the bombing and invasion, holed up in a hotel basement.
Ed and I have corresponded off and on since then. I documented one bit of our exchange, during a later season of impending national crisis, this one during Advent, where I ended a note to Ed with, “There is agony in the air, and we must listen for the sounds of angel wings.”
To which Ed replied, “Nor, alas, dare we ignore the flailing of devils’ tails.”
Nativity as ‘passive symbol’
According to the U.S. Supreme Court (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984), the traditional courthouse Nativity scene displayed at Christmas has become “a passive symbol.” In a case upholding a 40-year-old tradition in Pawtucket, R.I., of erecting a city-sponsored Christmas display (which included Santa Claus), Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that it “engenders a friendly community spirit” and “serves the commercial interests” of the merchants.
“When agony is in the air, we must listen both for the sound of angel wings and the flailing of devils’ tails. Each provides essential context for interpreting the other.”
The intimation of Advent and Christmastide is this: When agony is in the air, we must listen both for the sound of angel wings and the flailing of devils’ tails. Each provides essential context for interpreting the other.
Advent’s announcement warns of trouble at hand. Most in the believing community prefer Christmastide’s enchantment rather than its contention. We read the Nativity story by way of jingle bells, roasted chestnuts and jolly St. Nick (whose backstory is a fourth century Middle Eastern bishop known for making anonymous gifts to the poor, without first checking whether they had been naughty or nice).
We envision the “swaddling clothes” in which baby Jesus was wrapped coming from Neiman Marcus; and yet another miracle, this one postpartum: “no-crying-he-made” — obviously a Christmas carol written by a man.
Jesus, we are led to believe, doesn’t do disturbance. Which is why we gloss over the angel’s announcement of heaven’s good-news revelation, which to many in the Nativity characters begins with this warning: “Do not be afraid.”
Because there was much to fear. King Herod, in particular, was so threatened by the Wise Guys’ briefing, he launched his assassination squad’s mission to Bethlehem.
This is no ‘sleep in heavenly peace’
Contrary to the carol’s claim, Christmastide is no “sleep in heavenly peace,” but a troublesome rereading of creation’s covenant. What was previously presumed to be “law and order” is exposed for the façade of injustice it really was (and is). There is turbulence in nativity’s wake.
Advent brings the commencement of Mary’s Magnificat, her incendiary hymn of praise recorded in Luke 1 — the scattering of the proud, the toppling of the mighty, the ascent of the lowly — signaling a beachhead in the land of enmity.
Craig Greenfield explains: “During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited because of its incendiary lyrics. So, on the final day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.”
And this: “During the 1980s, the government of Guatemala found the ideas raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.”
“The chorus of Advent is that every Herod-heart is exposed and flails like devils’ tails.”
And this: “The (1976) junta in Argentina banned Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza.”
The chorus of Advent is that every Herod-heart is exposed and flails like devils’ tails, enraged by nativity’s insurgent proclamation. Every pharaoh, every Caesar is put on notice. But they will not go down without a fight.
Which is why earth’s contention mobilizes heaven’s attention. Creation’s promise has neither lapsed nor has been suppressed. The promise of Genesis awaits Revelation’s conclusion.
This is the evangelical proclamation of people of faith: The storm still rages, and we are on leaky boats outmatched by menacing wind and surging swells. But a calm is coming. The angels still preface their message with “fear not,” for faith is risky business, and devils still stalk the land.
Nevertheless, the prophet’s claim (Isaiah 40:5) — echoed in Luke’s rendering (3:6) — is that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” And John the Revelator (11:15), asserts this foreshadowed future, of when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God.”
“Angel wings and devil tails often appear simultaneously in history’s unfolding.”
Much empirical evidence disputes these claims. People of faith insist otherwise and, in fact, assume the risks of living in accordance with a very different vision, a vision that brings us into conflict with the current (dis)order.
Angel wings and devil tails often appear simultaneously in history’s unfolding.
In the end, Christmas cheer is not sugarplum pleasantry. It is the confidence that sustains the hearts of all who continue to practice praise in the manner of Mary, with the beatific vision underlying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, even in the face of perpetual threat.
Sing, children, whatever the caliber or timbre of your voice, in tune or off. For God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven.
Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.
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