In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For all of the time, preparation, and anticipation devoted to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the world has, for the most part, moved on from Christmas. By December 26, Christmas is spoken of in the past tense. For us in the Christian Church, this is still the season of Christmas, and today is the Fifth Day of Christmas. So keep on being merry and joyful for the Savior’s birth! Don’t let the world discourage you from continuing to celebrate. Keep the Christmas lights shining, as a sign of your faith in the Light of the world. Keep singing Christmas carols. We’re singing four of them today.
While we rejoice to celebrate that blessed Birth, and to celebrate and worship our Savior in freedom, we also know that, for many people around us, this may not be as joyous a time. There are those who suffer some anguish or affliction in body, mind, or spirit, in their family, work, finances, or some other sorrow. We know that people die every day, even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Over Christmas Eve and Day, a typhoon barreled through the central Philippines, killing sixteen and forcing thousands to flee their homes. This Christmas, three Hope families saw loved ones depart this earthly life, one on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day. They mourn, yet they also rejoice with a solemn joy to know that, though their loved ones are gone, they are not lost. For they know where they are: in the glorious presence of the Savior.
On some recent Christmas Days, we have heard news reports of terrorist bombings, often in the Middle East, and often an attack against Christians gathered in their church for Christmas worship services. As far as I know, there were no such incidents this Christmas, thanks be to God. Yet we know that the persecution of Christians continues in many lands around the world every day. Some communities in Iraq and Syria that were ninety percent Christian a decade ago are now less than ten percent Christian. Some of those populations have even reportedly been reduced to just a handful of Christians, if any. We have been hearing about the tensions in Hong Kong between pro-freedom protesters and the Communist government in Beijing. Hong Kong has just under a million Christians, including the Lutheran Church Hong Kong Synod, in fellowship with the Missouri Synod. But it was reported that of the 38 Roman Catholic churches in Hong Kong, only 20 were going to hold Christmas Midnight mass this year. No word on what Lutheran churches did. Some fear a government crackdown, especially against Christians, by the officially atheistic government police force.
Our Gospel reading reminds us that the oppression and persecution of Jesus Christ and His Church are not new. Last Sunday and in our Christmas services, we heard the joyous news of the birth of “a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” “and you shall call His name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Those were the words spoken by holy angels sent from God, the former to shepherds watching over their flocks in the pastures not far from Bethlehem, and the latter to Joseph. The shepherds were “sore afraid,” trembling with fear at the sight of the angel and the glory of the Lord. Joseph was troubled at the news that Mary his betrothed, his promised wife, was with child, clearly not by him. The angels said to each of them, “Fear not.” The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem, found the Babe just as it had been told them, and they went on their way, praising God and rejoicing. Joseph didn’t have it nearly as easy, nor did Mary and the young Jesus.
Matthew follows his account of Jesus’ birth with the visit by the wise men, or Magi, probably sometime within the following year, maybe two. Those visitors, who had first gone to King Herod in Jerusalem, are warned in a dream not to go back to him, but to return home by another way. Then, “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, 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’” (Mt 2:13). What a way to continue someone’s birthday celebration, to hear about an attempt on the person’s life! It’s easy to think that Herod was a madman, that there was something particularly malevolent about him. Not so, for his behavior is typical—typical of royalty through history, and typical of humans who feel their position, power, fame, wealth, or the like threatened. But it’s behavior typical of not just any humans, but of sinners—you know, all those humans who have been, by nature, turned against God in disobedience.
Our Gospel reading points us to the last of the three special feast days following Christmas Day, and so we could call these three a Triduum, which is simply a Latin term for a three-day period; in church usage it signifies a special three-day observance. The best known is in the Time of Easter, the Triduum at the end of Holy Week, including Maundy Thursday evening plus Good Friday as one day, Holy Saturday as day two, and the Easter Vigil plus Easter Day as the third day. In the Time of the Church, one could mark the Triduum of Reformation, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. This Triduum in the Time of Christmas consists of St. Stephen’s Day, December 26; St. John the Apostle and Evangelist’s Day, December 27; and Holy Innocents’ Day, December 28. Together, these three are sometimes called “the Witness Days.” Our Gospel reading includes the Holy Gospel for Holy Innocents’ Day (Matthew 2:16–18):
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
St. Stephen, who was one of the deacons ordained by the Apostles in the Book of Acts to serve the widows and the poor, is traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death for his proclamation of Jesus as the promised Messiah and Savior. The Holy Innocents, those baby boys of Bethlehem, are also regarded as martyrs, though not for the testimony of their faith. As we pray in the Collect for that day, they “showed forth [God’s] praise not by speaking but by dying.” St. John the Apostle and Evangelist was not martyred; he was the only apostle to die a natural death. Yet he did bear his cross, suffering for the Faith of Christ, as he describes his exile in the Book of Revelation: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:9).
Why observe these feast days so close to Christmas? A writer for Touchstone magazine made this observation sixteen years ago:
Generations of preachers have employed no little ingenuity, and sometimes a fair measure of eloquence, to expound the theological reasons for celebrating St. Stephen’s Day so close to Christmas. It is not to slight those rhetorical efforts that one reflects that “the feast of Stephen” was celebrated long before anyone thought of celebrating the birthday of the Savior. Stephen, that is to say, got there first. Indeed, there is good reason to think that St. Stephen’s is among the oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Moreover, except for the days of Holy Week and the Paschal [Easter] cycle itself, it is possible that the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
Yet there is something to ponder about having three such days right after Christmas, two days for martyrs and one for a man who was a martyr in spirit. I think the Higher Things Reflection for St. Stephen’s Day gives us good reason to reflect:
Today, the Lord brings you back to reality by telling you about St. Stephen. … Consider this: the morning after celebrating the Lord’s birth, the Lord gives you a cold cup of reality! The Christian life isn’t always decorations and happiness. You will suffer for His Name. You will doubt. You will despair. People will do evil things to you.
That pastor also reminds us of the meaning of Holy Innocents’ Day:
Sin, evil, death, pain, suffering, cancer, and the death of innocents is all because of sin. The world is evil. … And all you can do is look at the heavens sometimes and say, “Where is God in all of this?” He is there in the darkest places. He sees the evil of the world. He feels it. It hurts Him when His people hurt. Why doesn’t He act? He does. He did. He will. God sent His Son to save those children. Jesus came to take upon Himself all the evil in the world … [emphasis added]
That evil includes all the sin, all the wrong, all the injustice done to others, to your friends, to your family, done to you … and all the wrongs done by you to others. Jesus was born into this world, into our flesh and blood, yet without sin, to suffer and die for you, for those innocents, for every one, even for King Herod and for all who mock Jesus or wish to destroy Him and His Church. Isaiah declares of the LORD, “In all their affliction”—the suffering of His people in bondage in Egypt—“He was afflicted.” He knew their pain, their sorrow, their anguish—and He knows far beyond our ordinary human anguish, for in His innocence He bore the agony of the bloody sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane, crying, “Abba, Father,” then at the whipping post, and on the cross. He bore the fullness of the holy and righteous wrath of God in your place, in my place, in the place of the baby boys of Bethlehem, even in Herod’s place. He bore it for every sinner.
Pastor Michael Salemink, Executive Director of Lutherans For Life, recently spoke at an annual event called the Empty Manger Vigil. Here’s some of what he said:
We have gathered here to lament. We have gathered here to mourn. We have gathered here to grieve. Evil has invaded our world. Sin has settled over our land. Satan has persuaded our people to use death as a solution. …
We have gathered here to bear witness to an empty manger. …
We have gathered here to repent of our own apathy, our own inactivity, our own apprehension that has allowed this to happen. …
We have gathered here to remind this community, to remind this civilization, that Herods still slay their little ones—our little ones—in anger and in fear. …
We have gathered here to weep with Rachel, if only in our spirits, because the littlest innocents have been martyred, because her children have been slaughtered, and they are no more. …
Yet we have been gathered here to rejoice. Yes, we have been gathered here to rejoice at an empty manger. We have been gathered here to celebrate that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. … We have been gathered here to repeat and to proclaim that our God, the Maker, has incarnated Himself alongside us. We have been gathered here to declare that His great compassion has involved Him in our world, in our nature, in our condition, in our pain, in our failure, and even in our sinfulness and death.
We have been gathered here to delight that the manger is empty because the Christ child not only endured our anger and fear but He survived it, because the light shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. We have been gathered here to testify that the manger is empty because Jesus grew and knew our difficulty and our suffering and our sorrow. We have been gathered here to bear witness that the manger is empty because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of humankind, and the Lord of creation, has gone out into the world and into lives and homes and hearts.
We have been gathered here to rejoice that Jesus left the manger to lift Himself up on the cross, on our cross, to undergo punishment in our place, to atone for all evil, to pay the price and render ransom for every life, to sacrifice His body and blood for us, to die for us. We have been gathered here to rejoice that not only has the manger been emptied but the grave itself has been vacated, too; for Christ has risen, returned, and ascended to reign over the heavens and the earth, our past, present, and future.
[Reprinted by permission; full text at https://www.lutheransforlife.org/article/the-holy-innocents/]
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.