Erin and I took a ‘free day” in Bethlehem, and headed up from Nativity Square, via a long shop lined street, up to the Milk Grotto. This is the place that commemorates events around the story that we read today - of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, Herod’s violence aimed at destroying the babe.
This is the Milk Grotto - or this is the church built on top of the limestone cave that is the Milk Grotto. The extra Biblical story of this place is that when Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and get the heck out of Dodge, they were on the road when Jesus woke up hungry. And so they stopped so that Mary could nurse him in a little limestone cave. The story is that a drop of Mary’s milk dropped onto the cave, and that instantly, the interior of the cave turned pure white, by contact with Mary’s holy milk.
Well - that’s not a Protestant story. Or a modern story. Or a believable story. But it is an interesting story - especially for Erin, whose job includes encouraging new moms to nurse their babies. And for me, who just loves religious stories featuring women. So Erin and I went there and had a good time, looking at the art and seeing the limestone grotto. And marveling at the line of folks who were waiting at the gift shop to buy little packets of limestone dust - to be ingested as a cure for “women’s problems”.
We had a grand old time, exploring this quirky, exotic corner of Bethlehem. And I often think of that fun adventure. So when we finished, we walked back down the street toward the center of town. Young men holding strips of postcards tried to sell to us as we walked by. A couple of store owners addressed us as we went by, asking us to stop and look at their shops. We politely declined. La. Shukran. I used the Palestinian sign language for polite “No” - shaking two fingers low.
And then something happened that still haunts me. A child, a little boy, appeared and walked in front of us, begging. Just as I had only two or three Arabic words, he seemed to be able to say only, “Dollars. Please. Please.” It wasn’t what he said that I remember, though. It was his thin little arms and child’s hands, making the gesture for money. (rubbing fingers with thumb) And the face - two black eyes and bruises - black and yellow and purple - something horrible had happened to that little boy. Maybe he ahd fallen down. Maybe he had been in a car wreck. Maybe . . . but the most likely explanation was that he had been beaten. Oh my God. Erin and I didn’t know what to do.
The encounter only lasted a minute. Maybe less. And when he went on to someone else, we said very little to each other. What do you think happened to him? Erin is trained to recognize child abuse. He looked beat up. Who would do that? What do you suppose . . . Could we have helped? It was so disturbing. And, no matter what you do in a situation like that, you wonder if it was right. And I feel bad. Because what I really wanted to do is scoop him up and hug him, which would have been another assault.
It was kind of as sick as I felt on that trip. And we didn’t tell anyone about it. And we haven’t talked about it since we have been back. The day went on. We had other adventures. We ate felafel and went for a very enlightening taxi ride. We saw the place where Jesus was born, and explored the Arab market. We haggled, unsuccessfully, for a good price for a taxi ride home, and when we didn’t get it we started walking back to Beit Jala, only to accidentally stumble on the Arab bus stand, where we were able to catch a ride that took us right to our guest house for only fifty cents. It was a good day. With one little disquieting moment.
I don’t like to think about that incident. But this story brought it back.
Because here, too, there is a quaint and intriguing story and sandwiched in there is something so horrifying that I have a hard time reading the words out loud to you. Child murder. Mass murder. Baby boys ripped from their mother’s arms and killed in front of their eyes. Honestly, as a mother, this story shakes me to the core.
What is it doing here? Why is it part of Holy Scripture? What do we make of it?
One way to approach it is to work your way around it, eyes carefully averted. After all, The Slaughter of the Innocents is sandwiched between two stories of how God helped Joseph and Mary protect baby Jesus against a threat that would have derailed salvation history. In the first few verses, Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and the baby and flee Bethlehem. And in the last verses, a little bit of divine relocation program places the Holy Family in a new home. There is surely a sermon in that. A sermon about how God meets us in our moments of triumph and urges us to move on, plants us in new places.
I kind of like that message - that lots of times in life, we’d want to linger in the afterglow of a wonderful moment, but God is always beckoning, warning, urging us on. Our lives are lived best when we follow our dreams and let God be at work.
That’s the good news of the “frame” of this story. Pay attention to your dreams. Trust God’s plan. That would make a nice New Year’s message.
If not for that interlude, in which Herod kills the babies.
So what do we do with that? What do we do with that, as we begin a New Year?
It would be nice if we could think - oh, that only happened in Herod’s day. But that dog won’t hunt. If only in the back of our minds, we know that children are still dying because of evil rulers, power hungry potentates, Herods.
The World Health Organization has estimated, through the use of limited country-level data, that almost 53,000 children died worldwide in 2002 as a result of homicide.8 Not all of them at the hands of warlords and despots, but some. Alot, actually.
Save the Children a reputable source for figures on children in need around the world reports that Sadly, one child dies every three seconds largely from preventable and treatable causes due to the lack of basic health care. Not because we don’t HAVE the resources to provide it, but because the governments of this world allocate resources so badly.
40 million kids are deprived of an education because of war.
Another 30 million or so are perpetually hunger and malnourished - while we throw away enough food - and eat too much food - to more than feed them.
This is not “just the way things are”. The evil of the world is not part of God’s plan. The evil of the world is, on some level, the fearful, furious response of worldly power to Jesus’ inbreaking. There is opposition - fierce and brutal opposition- to the message of Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.
And innocent people - children - mothers - parents - families - communities get hurt.
And how awful is that?
Well. It’s awful. So what’s the good news? Well. I think there is some. That Jesus actually is the New Born King. We don’t have to answer to Herod. Jesus has come - Emmanuel - God with us. And God loves children. We have a loving and creative God among us, and with His help, we can make a difference and protect and nurture the world’s children. The Christ child grew up and lived a life of simplicity and compassion that shows us there is a better way.
Last Sunday’s paper had two stories that leapt out at me:
One was about an agency that helps the victims of child abuse heal and deal with what has happened to them. Here’s the headline: Help for the innocent. Turn the page and there is a story about an ordinary mom who has invented a water filter: Mother’s work saves thousands in Haiti. Let me read you something here: Fifteen years go, Lisa Ballantine was a stay-at-home mom who had never traveled outside the U.S. In 2000, her entire family sent a life-changing year as missionaries in the Dominican Republic. “I’m a Christian, and I believe my life is to serve other people,” she said. She came home, read the story, God’s fingerprints are all over this one.
But you don’t have to read the newspaper to hear about people trying to protect and cherish the world’s children. Listen to Jeri and Kirk talk about what they did in Malawi. Ask the Lauchners about the young African man they have sponsored for years. Talk to my Mom about how Presbyterian Women has focussed on projects that save mothers and children. Talk to Erin about her work with teen moms. Ask about Abraham’s Tent - the afterschool program for children in refugee camps in the West Bank - which began with start up money from this church - this Presbytery - the people who sit with you in these pews. Visit with Michael Trout or Terry Pratt, and find out why they spend a lot of Wednesday afternoons hanging out, listening and talking with Philo kids. That’s far from an exhaustive list of child protective actions. It’s just a reminder that there are lots of ways to do God’s will, to respond to children’s needs.
The urge to save children’s lives, and to mitigate the hurt they suffer innocently, is a Christian reaction. The Christian reaction. Not despair. Not revenge. Not getting even. Not killing some body else’s babies. And not ignoring. Saving. Helping. Comforting.
The story of the slaughter of the innocents can turn into good news if it moves us to do what lies within our power - and our power is considerable, my friends! - to respond as Christians to children in peril.
We can’t do that if we are caught unawares. If our surprise overwhelms our ability to respond. That’s what happened to Erin and me. We weren’t ready. We didn’t expect to encounter brutality and pain on our little tourist-y adventure. Well. The story of the Slaughter of the Innocents is a way to prepare Christians for evil in the world. We can’t be all “happy clappy” all the time, expecting that God will take care of everything and everyone without any action on our part. Maybe this story is a way for us to begin to think about what we can and will do to safeguard and cherish the innocents God so loves.
It’s good news if we recognize that the year we have ahead of us will be richer, more faithful and more important if we improve, not just our own lives, not just our own situations, but make a difference for the innocents who we see suffering.
What does God have in store for YOU? is inextricably tied to the question
What kind of a year will you help to make it for the innocents?