The Slaughter of the Innocents - A Christmas Reflection

I was at Kwibuka Friends Church, up country, Burundi. My friend David was showing me his home church, the church of his childhood. We came in the back door - like family.

They have a bell. I have an affinity for church bells and gave it a tug. It sang easily. David whirled and said “Don’t ring the bell! Everyone in the neighborhood will think we want them and drop what they are doing and come!” oopps. He went outside to find the nearest group of children to send out the word of my false alarm.

While he was out, I explored. The room behind the pulpit is like that in any church, full of family heirlooms and trash. There were miniature shepherd’s crooks and a tiny rough manger. Burundians largely still live by truck patch and small flocks – close to the Gospel. I caught sight of something in the manger and reached for it. Up came a small wooden cut-out of an AK-47. I was more than a bit appalled.

“What is this? I demanded of my friend as he walked back in.”
He chuckled, “That is what soldiers carry in Burundi.”

“You are kidding me, they use this is the Christmas play?”

“Sure – how else are you going to do the part where Herod goes after the babies?”

Now I was stunned, staring at the tiny weapon in my hands. Holding back tears, I asked “You re-enact the Slaughter of the Innocents in your Christmas pageant?”

“Of course, how else would you explain why Mary and Joseph must become refugees? Don’t your Christmas plays have that?”

“No, we usually stop after the angels and the wise men.”

“Hmm, our children don’t see many angels or kings – but they do understand killing and running. They feel close to Jesus when they see these things in His story.”

Well, America, nobody ever said it was going to be all Angels and Kings. We have joined our Burundian brethren in their sorrow. Perhaps we need to join them more deeply in the Story.

It is important to remember that Herod the Great was not a Roman. He was a terror, but he was not some external terrorist. He was the same religion as Mary and Joseph and their babe. He was the same ethnicity as the infants he commanded to be slaughtered. He was a Roman collaborator; he was a narcissist and a blowhard. And he had too much power. But he was Us, not Them.

God could have sent an angelic host (army) to Herod. God could have shaken his house with an earthquake. God could have sent Pharaoh’s plagues. But that would not be Emmanuel – that would not be God with us. With us in our pain, our flight, our despair. How would we feel close to Jesus if God only dealt with Kings?

It is good to remember that the Nativity is the first wave of a Divine insurrection. Christmas is subversive, and what is a subversion without a wicked dominant paradigm? The incarnation is an infusion of infinite love into the very middle of finite human suffering and sin. It is important to remember which of those things are temporal and which is not.

It is right to remember the words and actions of the survivors. Did Mary’s Magnificat die in Egypt? It did not. She returns from exile, and calls for his first miracle, because she knows who He is. At Cana she calls for a miracle of celebration – water into wine. A wedding celebrated under occupation. Because survivors know that when we raise a glass to Life in the very face of death we remind death, and hell, and sin, and sorrow, that their days are numbered. There will come another wedding feast, the guests will be the poor and the oppressed, and the joy will be unmingled.

Until that day we will defiantly celebrate Love. We will treasure what breath we are given. We will light lights in the darkness. And when we are not celebrating we work – work for love and justice and peace. Because we breathe today and can, and for those who cannot.

In October of 1993, exactly ten years before I stood in Kwibuka church, my friend David Niyonzima survived a school shooting just down the road. He was teaching his pastoral students when the rebels came. They were also Christians, also Burundians, and they slaughtered the innocent. All the students died as they fled, only David escaped. He feels very close to Jesus in that. He also celebrates, and laughs, and enjoys his physical comforts, because he can. And when he is not playing, he works – hard. Because he knows that his work is never in vain. He knows this because he is close to Jesus.