What Are You Afraid Of, Herod?
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What Are You Afraid Of, Herod?
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Two observances here at St. Monica and St. James churches were sparked by a Christmas letter from Bishop Mariann in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.
One was prayer and the tolling of our church bell at 9:30 on the morning of December 21 in remembrance of the Newtown dead. This event at our parish occurred in concert with similar events undertaken by hundreds of faith communities across our nation.
The second observance is this Mass for Holy Innocents’ Day, a long-established feast. We added this liturgy to our parish calendar this year not only to commemorate the Innocents of Bethlehem, but the Innocents of Newtown and every place where children are slaughtered by adults.
In his Christmas letter, Bishop Mariann wrote, “There is a new spirit blowing in our land. Surely you have felt it. Momentum is building daily as more and more voices cry out for change. I am convinced that we are at an opportune moment to fundamentally change the course of our nation, a time when even the smallest of gestures can make a tremendous difference for good.”
This Mass is offered to the glory of God and as a contribution by one particular Christian community to the momentum for change that is indeed building across our nation.
Do you remember what happens when the Magi arrive in Jerusalem? They have come to pay homage to a newborn Jewish king, and so they ask where he can be found.
Their inquiry causes the entire city to be gripped by fear, especially King Herod. As one ancient hymn tells it, “When Christ’s appearing was made known, King Herod trembled for his throne.”
Taking a cue from Scripture, Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem, requesting that later they tell him where to find the child. After delivering their gifts to Jesus and paying him homage, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so they go home by another road.
When he realizes that the Magi have tricked him, Herod becomes furious. He orders the killing of every baby boy in the vicinity of Bethlehem, believing that the new king will surely be among them. Thus the Innocents of Bethlehem become the victims of Herod’s fear and fury.
Quodvultdeus, bishop of Carthage in the fifth century, asked this question in a sermon concerning the slaughter of the Innocents of Bethlehem:
“Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this, you are disturbed and in a rage. and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the deaths of so many children.”
American society needs to be asked questions in the face of the slaughter of the Innocents of Newtown and of thousands of children each year due to gun violence.
Why are you afraid, America, of some reasonable degree to gun control?
Why does your rage and fear so exceed your love for your children?
Why do you insist on offering up children as human sacrifices on the altar of your insecurities?
Why are your public officials powerless to structure our society in a way that protects children at school from mass murderers?
Why, America, are you so enamored of violence, so entertained by slaughter, so numb to the gift of life that God bestows upon us all?
Why do you not care for the mentally ill among you, but lead them into temptation by putting in their hands weapons designed to kill large numbers of people?
Why, America, do you spurn the ways of peace and choose time and again the ways of sin and death?
Our nation’s response to Newtown must be in part legislative and legal. We are talking, after all, about a societal issue.
But the nation’s response to Newtown will be horribly inadequate unless it is also a spiritual response. We must undergo conversion, a change of heart and mind.
Away from violence and toward peace.
Away from gun anarchy and toward gun control.
Away from sanctioned hostility and toward effective reconciliation.
It’s going to cost something. But the cost will be worth it.
From time to time this nation discovers its courage and once again, we recognize somebody else’s rights.
This has happened, however slowly and inadequately, with regard to several groups.
African Americans and other ethnic minorities.
The time has come to recognize that all of us have the right to live in a society that strictly controls the availability of firearms.
Here as in so many areas, politicians cannot be counted on to function as transformative leaders. Instead, they must be held accountable when they fail to follow the best instincts of the populace.
To set this nation free from bondage to firearms, churches and other faith communities must start acting again as what they have been sometimes in the past: centers of uncompromising moral and spiritual energy.
To honor the Innocents of Bethlehem and Newtown and every other community that has buried dozens of its children, we must, as people of faith, demand change and keep demanding it. We must imagine and implement a better future. We must expose the National Rifle Association and any other group that gets in the way. We must hold each and every public servant accountable. And we must do the hardest thing of all: allow our own hearts to be transformed not once, but many times. We must live lives marked by repeated conversion.
The root problem is not cowardly legislators, devious lobbyists, or hard-hearted gun owners. The root problem is that all our hearts are often overtaken by fear and fury. We must choose a better way. All of us need to be set free form believing that violence is powerful, that guns are a solution, that human opponents must be destroyed. This is the way of Herod, and it leads to death.
The Civil Rights Movement recognized that white racism damaged whites as well as blacks.
Newtown can help us see that the worship of weapons hurts gun owners as well as people killed by guns.
The liberation of each of us is tied in with the liberation of all of us.
None of us has to be a Herod. None of us has to be a victim. There’s another choice: each of us can discern the other, each of us can discern even ourselves, as another Christ, a child of God.
Copyright for this sermon 2013, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).