Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from an Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Martyrdom of Infants/ Christmas
Volume 5 No. 321 December 26, 2015
III. Featured Articles - Martyrdom of Infants

Celebrate the Christ-Child and Remember the Children

by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Alberta, Canada

Many people have this far too romantic and idealistic notion that Christmas has to be perfect. Such people have the tendency to dwell on the sentimental aspects of Christmas as an escape from the harsh, cold realities of life in this world. The truth of the matter is that the powers of evil were actively at work when Christ was born and they are still actively at work today.

Yes, even at Christmas time, there are countless, untold stories of child abuse, torture and even murder - most of these stories don't make it into the news. Today, our gospel would have us focus on the stories of such children, just as we focus on the Christ-Child. So, let me indulge you a little today, as we remember the far too many children around the globe who have suffered and continue to suffer from the powers of evil.

Gnanaguru Aravinthan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, was just 13 years old when his father last saw him in September 1985. He had been sent home by his father to change his clothes. He was then supposed to meet his father at a friend's house. Gnanguru never arrived. Neighbors told the father they had seen his son in the custody of soldiers from a nearby army camp. However, when he went to the camp he was told the boy had not been arrested.

Nahaman Carmon, 13, was a street child in Guatemala City. Early on the morning of March 4, 1990, he was sniffing glue, as a means of quelling hunger, with a group of other street children. They were then surrounded by the police, who poured glue over their heads and reportedly kicked Nahaman viciously. He was later treated in the intensive care unit at the hospital and operated on for a ruptured liver. He died on March 14 without regaining consciousness.

Three-year-old Clesio Pereira de Souza of Brazil was riding on his father's shoulders when he was shot in the back by gunmen, who then shot his father in the head at point-blank range. The killings were carried out by gunmen believed to have been hired by men claiming the land cultivated by the local peasant community. When his mother tried to report the case, the police chief alleged he could not record it as he had no pen or paper. (1)

Far too many parents are wailing and lamenting today for their children and they refuse to be consoled because they've lost their children to forced child labor projects where the children are treated like slaves; they've lost their children to terrorist militias who force young children to kill their own people or themselves be killed if they refuse; they've lost their children to the makers of pornography and child prostitution and sometimes the pimps kidnap and market these children to another country so that the parents never see them again. Such are the harsh, cold realities of the world today. In this sense, nothing much has changed under the sun. Far too often it seems that the powers of evil are winning.

If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. But they lived in El Salvador in the 1980s. They lived in one of the outlying villages, and the guerrilla war raged in the communities around them and often in their own.

If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. But they were not safe, not even in their own homes. They were Christians, and their mom and dad had a picture of Pope John Paul II on one wall and a crucifix on another. These pictures made their home suspect.

If they had lived in another place, they would have been safe. In Mexico, their lives would not have been in danger. In Spain or France, they would have been safe. But in El Salvador in the 1980s, mothers, fathers, teens, children, even babies were murdered. All Christians were suspected of being subversives, and the killing of innocent children was a powerful signal to other Christians in the area that their lives were also in danger. The death of the innocent ones was used as a threat against their elders.

Martyrs. Innocent, young martyrs. All because Jesus was in their midst. (2)

In today's gospel, we learn that the celebration of Christmas is not so pretty, romantic or idealistic. Rather, we learn through this divine drama in three acts that life in this world can be very dangerous. Life in this world can be cruel. Life in this world can be subject to evil plots, schemes and acts orchestrated by power hungry people who themselves are possessed by evil and rely on evil to protect their power and status.

In the first act of this divine drama, God speaks to Joseph in a dream through an angel, a messenger of God, commanding him to: "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."

WOW! What a message! No romantic or idealistic picture of Christmas here! Rather, we have the harsh, cold reality of a tyrant ruler, Herod, who is determined to shed innocent blood. He's doing everything possible to kill the Christ-Child. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod was an extremely cruel man, who seems to of had no problems ruling by evil means. …Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons (even Caesar in Rome is reported to have said it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son); and at his burial, one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn. (3) However, Herod did not manage to kill Jesus. Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt and lived there as refugees until after it was safe to return back to the Promised Land, after Herod had died, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

I wonder what life was like for Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Egypt. After all, there was the history, along with its memories of Israel in Egyptian slavery. It may have been risky to go back to Egypt. Would they as refugees be safe there? Or would they be giving up one oppressive ruler for another oppressive ruler? Could Joseph really trust God's messenger and the message? What would life be like in Egypt? Could they adjust to life as refugees in a land where their ancestors were slaves? Were they destined to be slaves like their ancestors? Such may have been Joseph's thoughts as he set out for Egypt. If only there were more dreams like Joseph's. If only there were more messengers of God instructing poor, vulnerable people in the world today. If only there were more refugees finding safe places to flee to and live for a time. If only there were more innocent lives saved - especially the lives of children.

As the second act of our divine drama unfolds, we are told that Herod was infuriated when he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. So "he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under." According to Matthew, this fulfilled the nightmare, tragic prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, which warned: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

There are far too many Rachels in our world today. There are far too many mothers of children who were innocent and have been brutally abused, tortured and killed. As some of you may know, to lose a child is one of the most difficult losses, the most tragic of deaths that we can face. How much more difficult it must be if one loses a child by evil means. How might we as followers of Jesus have compassion on the Rachels of today? Might we share the love of Christ with them by walking with them in their wailing and lamentation? Perhaps we can be God's messengers for such parents.

In the third act of the gospel's divine drama today, once again Joseph has two more dreams and God's messenger speaks to him, instructing him first of all that the tyrant Herod has died and now it's safe to return back to Israel. And, in the second dream, Joseph was warned not to settle in Judea, where Herod's son Archelaus now ruled, and was almost as cruel as Herod. Rather, Joseph was instructed to go to Nazareth in the district of Galilee and live with Mary and Jesus there.

This third act of the divine drama reminds us that the Herods of this world do not prevail. Sooner or later they lose their power. Sooner or later they die. Today, as we remember the Christ-Child and the danger he was in, and his flight into Egypt as a refugee; we also pause and remember today all of the children in this world who have been or who are right now being abused, tortured, murdered or living somewhere as refugees. We remember too the parents of these children. One day, these children and their parents shall be first in the kingdom of heaven. One day they shall be healed and restored completely from their sufferings and their grief. One day when the Christ-Child shall become King of kings and Lord of lords, all tyrants; all the Herods of this world shall be no more. One day King Jesus shall destroy all evil powers completely and rule eternally in perfect peace and love. And that's worth celebrating during this season of Christmas and every season! Amen.


1 Cited from a letter I received written by Paul Bentley, former President, Amnesty International, Canada Section, English Speaking, 1990.

2 Emphasis, Vol. 5, No. 4, November-December 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 67.

3 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book XVII, written between 66-74 AD. This citation is from: David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 25.

Source: Dim Lamp - The Weblog of the Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson.

Rachel Weeping

by Frederick Niedner

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

On Christmas Day we join choirs of angels and raise the strains of "Joy to the World!" Our children sing sweetly of the, little Lord Jesus so peacefully asleep on the hay that he doesn't cry out when animals wake him with off-key parts to the lullaby. But then the music changes drastically. We hear wailing and loud lamentation. Ancient mother Rachel weeps inconsolably over the loss of her children. Must we listen to this? Have we no season to block out the sounds of grief?

Though it hints at eventual sorrow, Luke's six-scene operetta about Jesus' birth has no song of lament. By contrast, Matthew's birth story is drenched in children's blood and needs Rachel's lament. No other tears suffice.

Remember Rachel? Because Jacob loved her more than Leah, the sister he didn't wish to marry. God apparently closed Rachel's womb, says Genesis, while Leah bore many sons. Eventually, Rachel confronted both God and Jacob. "Give me children or I'll die!" she demanded. When she finally bore Jacob a son, she named him "Joseph," which means, "Do it again," or "Let there be another." Thus, all who shared her rejoicing and spoke her child's name joined her prayer for another son.

When birth pangs came a second time to Rachel, the family was in transit. As so often happened then, something went wrong and Rachel died birthing the answer to her prayer. With her last breaths she named the baby Benoni, "Son of my sorrow." Jacob could not bear the sound of his beloved's sorrow in this baby's name, so he called the child Ben-jamin, "Son of my right hand." This second name lifted a burden from father and son, but it also silenced the dying mother's voice.

For a thousand years Rachel rested in deep silence out there in her makeshift tomb along the roadside near Bethlehem. Then came a day when Jeremiah was watching as Babylonian soldiers marched Rachel's offspring, children of Israel, naked and trembling along that same road toward exile far away. This prophet, himself so intimate with heartbreak that he wished both he and his mother had perished on the day of his birth, could not bear this grief alone. For company in sorrow, he called mother Rachel from her tomb and gave voice again to her cries that refuse all consolation.

The rabbis explain in an ancient midrash why the next verses in Jeremiah contain a promise of God: "Keep your voice from weeping ... there is hope for your future ... your children shall come back." Even God found the ruin of Jerusalem too much to bear alone, said the rabbis. So God called ancient worthies like Abraham and Moses to come weep. Both refused, blaming God for the devastation. "You stopped the knife from plunging into Isaac, and the Pharaoh's armies from slaughtering the runaway slaves, but you couldn't save Jerusalem?" they protested. At length God called Rachel, who came to share God's own grieving. She refused all consolation, cheap or otherwise, and, according to rabbis, prompts God's promise of hope. There are some desolations so profound they defy all but God's own attempts to comfort, and even God must dig deeply to respond.

Later Jewish mystics took this a step further. They taught that when the Messiah came, only one place on earth would prove suitable for his coronation -- not some high place like Sinai or Zion, but that lonely place on the road to Ephrath where Rachel lies in the dust. "To mother Rachel he will bring glad tidings. And he will comfort her. And now she will let herself be comforted. And she will rise up and kiss him" (Zohar 2.7a-9a).

Matthew's Gospel shares something of the spirit of these teachings. His story declares that Mary's baby, Joseph's soil, is the fulfillment of Israel's messianic hope. The magi come with gifts that declare this child a king, but we cannot crown this messiah unless we first pass through Ephrath and stop at Rachel's tomb. Matthew's Gospel does more than pause there to listen. Although the Emmanuel child escapes Herod's angry slaughter, his ultimate coronation will come not far from Ephrath, on Golgatha, where Mary will suffer the cruel robbing of her womb. This time, the Christian gospel proclaims, God also pays the identical price and knows the same loss as Rachel, Jeremiah, Mary and all who risk involvement in a creation of flesh and blood, love and hatred, joy and sorrow, song and sin.

In the midst of our celebrations we also listen to Rachel's lament because today her children and her neighbors' children are still dying with their hands on each other's throats in blind rage over disagreements old as her own jealousy of Leah. Like Abraham and Moses in the ancient midrash, leaders Ariel, Mahmud, George and Tony step into the aftermath and lay more blame. They cannot take Rachel's disconsolate cries to heart because, truth be told, it would kill them, at least politically.

Only those already dead, or willing soon to die, can respond in a way that might give hope to Rachel's children and to all others caught up in all this world's whirlpools of violence and genocide. Supposedly, there are 2 billion such folks among us these days -- a third of the planet's population who take the name of Christ, bear his cross, have been buried with him by baptism into his death.

Perhaps we can't do anything about Bethlehem and Ramallah, Jerusalem and Gaza, Iraq and Sudan, even 2 billion of us who no longer need fear death because the worst than can happen to us already has. But we can weep. We can join our voices with Rachel's.

Imagine the din. Someone would have to listen.

God would listen. We have God's promise. And maybe, just maybe, those who speak for God would listen, too.

About The Author:

Frederick Niedner teaches theology at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Source: The Christian Century, December 14, 2004, p. 17. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission.

The Fear of Competition

By Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

A Humble Savior

The passage for the Sunday after Christmas, Matthew 2:13-23, contrasts the humble identity of the infant savior with the arrogant insecurity of Herod. These verses represent the closure of the infancy narrative in Matthew's gospel.

New Testament scholar John Meier regards the infancy narrative in Matthew as a "proleptic passion narrative." He says, "All that Matthew will later say about the Son who is the humble yet powerful servant (8:17, 12:18-21, 27:39-43), is already prefigured in his proleptic passion narrative" (The Vision of Matthew, p. 57).

This closing of the infancy narrative highlights the paradox of the transcendent yet lowly Son. The one who has been acknowledged by God as his own Son flees for his life while other infants are massacred in his place. When the exiled Son returns home, the threat of further danger forces him into exile again, in Galilee of the Gentiles, which will be his place of exile for the whole of his public ministry. He will come home to Judea only to die.

In the meantime, he who bears the exalted title of Son must simultaneously bear a title denoting his lowly, humble, obscure earthly status. "He shall be called a Nazorean" (2:23). Matthew understands the name to mean "an inhabitant of Nazareth." In highlighting this identity of Jesus, Matthew is making an analogy to a sacrificial vocation, to Samson's vocation as a Nazirite, one who takes a vow to observe various abstinences in their religious vocation in Numbers 6. In highlighting Jesus' identity as a "Nazorean," Matthew is also pointing readers to his obscurity. The village of Nazareth is not mentioned in any ancient records outside the New Testament. It was evidently a very insignificant place, a geographical fact emphasized in John 1:46: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (See The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 34.)

Matthew presents Jesus as a Son of God who is an obedient servant, a humble sufferer (The Vision of Matthew, p. 57).

An Insecure King

In an excerpt from her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, contemporary Christian author Kathleen Norris contrasts the fear of Herod with the faith of the season of Epiphany.

Everything he (Herod) does, he does out of fear. Fear can be a useful defense mechanism, but when a person is always on the defensive like Herod, it becomes debilitating and self defeating. To me Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people can leave in their own wake if their fear is unacknowledged, if they have power but can only use it in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation.

Herod's fear is the epitome of what Jung calls the shadow. Herod demonstrates where such fear can lead when it does not come to light but remains in the dark depths of the unconscious. Ironically, Herod appears in the Christian liturgical year when the gospel is read on the Epiphany, a feast of light.

Norris tells of preaching on Herod on Epiphany Sunday in a small country church in a poor area of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. It was an area of the island tourists were warned to stay away from, an area where those who served the tourist industry as maids and tour bus drivers could afford to live. The church had much to fear: alcoholism, rising property costs, drug addiction, crime. The residents came to church for hope.

In her sermon Norris pointed out that the sages who traveled so far to find Jesus were drawn by him as a sign of hope. "This church," Norris told her congregation, "is a sign of hope in this community. Its programs, its thrift store, have become important community centers, signs of hope. The church represented," said Norris, "a lessening of fear's shadowy powers, an increase in the available light." She continued to say that "that's what Christ's Epiphany celebrates: his light shed abroad into our lives." She ended her sermon by encouraging the congregation to, like the ancient wise men, not return to Herod but find another way. She encouraged them to "leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, all alone with his fear" (Amazing Grace, pp. 226-227).

In the juxtaposing of Herod and Jesus we see the fears of all the years meeting the Hope.

Who knows what was going through Herod's mind? I would assume it was a desire to please his political superiors, to gain a prestigious reputation and to avoid political failure and the perception of weakness. I would assume that, in his world, there was always a contender who was younger, stronger, and breathing down his neck. There was always a competitor. Insecurity, as Norris points out, can lead to terrible things.

The hope that goes toe-to-toe with the insecurity and fear of competition of each new generation is eloquently expressed in the lectionary text from Isaiah 63:7-9.

The character and actions of the God that the prophet portrays make insecurity and competition unnecessary. Competition meets divine companionship. The children don't need to wrangle over which one is the parent's favorite. God is companion to all. God is willing to bless all. In these few short verses Isaiah shows us a God who is gracious and praiseworthy. This God shows an abundance of steadfast love to God's people. God assures them that they are his children and that he is willing to trust them again if they will cease their rebellion. God reminds them that he became their savior in a time of great distress, that it is he who saved and redeemed them and will do so again.

To an insecure king, who himself exercises almost godlike power over his subjects, the son of such a God is the ultimate threat. We notice in the text that Herod is the narrative spark plug. His hatred and his insecurity instigate the major events of the text: the flight to Egypt and the family's settling in an obscure region of Galilee. He can instigate, but he can't follow through. His fury builds as he is repeatedly foiled in getting what he wants most in life. He is foiled, first by the wise men, then by an angel going behind his back, then by the young father himself. Joseph's strategy to "hide out" and avoid Herod's son is a 1st-century version of entering the Witness Protection Program.

Why is Herod filled with such burning fury to destroy this child? Because the Son of the God portrayed by Isaiah is a game changer, someone who can overturn a world. Insecurity, cruel competition, and arrogance cannot ultimately survive in the same world with such a God. The Son must be destroyed.

This passage from Matthew's infancy narrative is a proleptic passion and resurrection narrative. In it we see that God's Power Prevails. It prevails here as it did in the Exile from Egypt and as it will in the crucifixion and resurrection of this newly born savior. This Son is not destroyed as an infant, just as he is, ultimately, not destroyed as an adult.

Competition is overcome by Divine companionship.

Sources Cited:

A.W. Argyle, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Gospel According to Matthew (Cambridge University Press, 1963)

John P. Meier, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church and Morality in the First Gospel (Paulist Press, 1978)

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998)

About The Author:

Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

Poem: My Son - A Memoire

by Dr. Mercy Abraham

Tear drops like dewdrops
Dribbling down my cheeks
Like a song unheard of before

You are Almighty, You are above all things
You are with me today and all the days to come

You are like a piece of music
Reverberating in my ear from afar
Like sprouting young shrub
Like a flowering bud in my garden -- you are almighty

You are always like a jingling bangle
I always want your presence near me
I am sitting alone in my porch expecting
You to surprise me today and always -- you are almighty

Your touch is like a soft caress on my cheek
Your memory touches my wounded face
I am alone sitting in this small garden hut
You come and dance around me today and always -- you are almighty

I am seeing you always in my dreams evergreen
Come near your mom, I know you love me
The echoes your music deafens my ear
The ornaments of your music is so pleasant
Can I ever forget your touch on the orchestra, dear -- you are almighty

About The Author:

Dr. Mercy Abraham is a familiar poet to Malankara World Journal readers. She is an alumnus of Kottayam Medical College and spent most of her life in UAE. Retired, she is back in India now. In this poem, Mercy expresses the grief over her son whose untimely death had plunged her into sorrow like what happened to Rachel in today's bible reading.

Copyright, 2015 by Mercy Abraham


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