Thursday, December 29, 2011

Combined Feasts of Holy Innocents and St. Stephen

From the most ancient of days, a large and terrifying creature used to roam the lands of Europe, parts of Asia and parts of Africa. It was called Aurochs. It was a completely wild type of cattle. The bull was enormous, 6 foot tall at the shoulder! It was a rite of passage for a young man, and sometimes a young woman, to go out into the forest alone to hunt, to kill one of these creatures by whatever means they could. If the young person succeeded;

1) They lived!

2) They provided food for their village and had proved their worth as a contributing citizen to the survival of the community.

3) They were now no longer considered to be child but a full adult.

As part of this rite of passage they cut off the horn, hollowed it out and this became their drinking horn – the sign of victory, the symbol of their adulthood. The Germans and Teutons did not, normally drink out of cups, they drank from horns… The horns also became a cultural sign of abundance, of plenty, of being blessed. This is why you see enormous wicker horns filled with pumpkins, corn and squash around Thanksgiving time. And in Charles Dicken’s the Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present carries such a horn… This particular horn is filled with the victory wine that the Holy Innocents would have celebrated with, would have drank had they lived to become men and women. But their lives were wasted, the glorious contributions they would have made to the surivival and joy of their communities were wasted, they were spilled out!

Who are the Holy innocents? The Gospel tells us they were the young boys King Herod ordered to be slaughtered, in order to secure his power and his wealth. He didn’t want to hear that another King was coming, he did not want to hear that justice was on its way.
Today, the Holy Innocents are those who are still being sacrificed for the very same reasons, to secure the power and wealth of the 1%. The Holy Innocents in the USA today are not being murdered in the streets. Supposedly, we live in a kinder, gentler time… But 50% of Americans now live at or below poverty level. 22% percent of children live in poverty today, more than 1 in 5 goes to bed hungry and headlines tell us that government funding for food programs is being cut. We all know that funding for education, physical education and music/arts education has been cut. What’s worse is there are politicians who want to do away with child labor laws so grade school children can be put to work. Can it get worse than this? Yes! There are so many children in America whose loving and devastated parents are forced to put them in foster care because the child has chronic health problems and the parents do not have either insurance or the cash to pay for health care. So, the children are put into the foster care system in the hope that the State will take care of the child’s medical problems. Often, however, this is not the case as state funding for health care is also being cut. These are the Holy Innocents of our day. They are being kept hungry, under-educated, their medical needs are being neglected and as a result, some die. Those who do not die look forward to a life of desperation. A life of minimum wage jobs, with no job security or unions to protect their rights, no insurance, and no ultimately, no hope of satisfaction or vocational fulfillment. Their lives are being wasted, the glorious contributions they would have made to the surivival and joy of their communities are being wasted, they are being spilled out!

An interesting observation, between our Gospel and the reading of Acts; when John the Baptist, Jesus and Stephen do begin to preach - to prophesy, they seem to cry out more against the religious than the  Romans and governing bodies. Stephen goes so far as to say; not only do you refuse to provide justice and equality and compassion to our people – but “You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” Stephen accuses the religious, not the politicians, of having a long history of killing of God’s prophets. Prophets who spoke out against oppression and injustice, who cried out that the widows and orphans and poor should be provided for, rather than being left behind. It’s as if John the Baptist, Jesus and Stephen expect the Church rather than the State to lead and provide the way to justice. Imagine that.

We’ve had a long period of time here in the USA without prophets, a long period of apathy. We’re starting to see prophets rise up, in the various protests around the nation; the protests concerning  wars, immigration, the Occupy Movement… What disturbs me though is these protests and prophets seem largely secular in nature. I fear that Christianity has not been using its prophetic voice,  and has, to some large degree, lost its moral authority in the eyes of the world. Christianity is routinely mocked, humiliated, scorned for having the most narrow-minded, extreme and hypocritical “leaders” being the face of our religion to the world. These days, Christians are thought of as being under-educated, delusional, anti-intellectual, greedy charlatans and pedophiles. Less than 20% of Americans attend Church on Sunday. About 10% read their Bibles on a weekly basis. This is bleak… But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We can reach out the Holy Innocents. We can invite them to supper, we can make sure they receive a decent education by voting or protesting, or even home educating. We can get to know them, spend time with them learn their hopes and dreams, give them the guidance, we can create stable communities for their mental, emotional and physical well-being. We can raise our voices to demand justice and equality. We can be prophets and heroes. We can be the face of a sane Christianity with real moral authority.

There’s something else I’d found intriguing in our reading tonight. Every time I hear Jesus mentioned as being in Heaven, he is SEATED at the right hand of the father. We say that in the creed, we read about it in various places of the Bible, like when the mother of James and John asks Jesus to let her sons sit on thrones to Jesus’s left and right… But in the book of Acts, when Stephen is dying, he looks up into the Heavens and sees Jesus STANDING UP. The King of Heaven is standing up with open arms, welcoming Stephen home. Who knows? Jesus may even be rushing toward Stephen to embrace him, much as the father races to embrace his prodigal son.

If we decide to take that step, to be prophets,  activists and advocates of justice and equality… If we decide to defend the Holy Innocents of our day and say; “Thou Shalt Not Pass! You will not harm any more of our children or innocent people!” We can expect to receive the same treatment John the Baptist, Jesus and Stephen did. We can expect the same treatment that Dr. Martin luther King Jr. did. We may not be beheaded, crucified, stoned, or even shot? It’s hard to say. But we can expect to be discredited, defamed, humiliated, made to look crazy, marginalized, blackballed. This is nothing new. We can also expect to see the King of Kings rushing toward us with open arms, to be greeted by the King of Compassion and Glory with an overwhelming love.

For those of you who, like me, have a more earthly, incarnational faith, who care a great deal more about what’s happening on earth rather than heaven, we find our hope in today’s Psalm. At first glance, the Psalm seems to mock all of the other readings. I mean look at it!

”let us thank the lord, who has not let our enemy destroy us. We have escaped…”

Stephen, John the Baptist, the Holy Innocents, even Jesus himself did not escape! They were slaughtered, their blood ran through the streets, just like  every other prophet according to Stephen’s testimony and Rachael’s inconsolable wailing. So, what is the Psalm talking about? The Psalm is talking about logos, the creative and healing Word of God which dwells in us as the Church Community. Neither the logos nor the Church has ever been completely silenced or destroyed. Nor do I expect them to ever be. Listen to the words of the Eucharistic prayer:

”through Jesus Christ, your eternal Word… you created all things. You laid the foundations of the world; you brought forth all creatures of the earth and gave breath to humankind. Wondrous are you, Holy One of Blessing, all you create is a sign of hope for our journey; 

Glory and honor are yours, Creator of all, your Word has never been silent; you call a people to yourself, as a light to the nations, you delivered them from bondage and led them to a land of promise.

Thanks be to God! The logos and the Church will never be silenced or forsaken. We can and will continue to be that light shining in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. 

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