Holy Innocents


Every year, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge features a new carol commissioned for the Christmas Eve service. This year, Hungarian poet George Szirtes’s poem “The Flight,” inspired by the plight of refugees trying to make their way to Europe, was set to music by Richard Causton. (Lyrics and link to audio below)

The account of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel, which immediately precedes the carol in the service, tells of Herod’s plan to track down the whereabouts of the newborn Jesus in order that he “may come and worship him also.” Of course, we know Herod’s actual intentions were not as he claimed, and the warning given to the Magi at the end of the reading precipitates another warning to Joseph, where Herod’s secret plot is made explicit.

Mary didn’t get a baby shower, or a nice, sanitary hospital birth. Jesus wasn’t cleaned up by a nurse and wrapped in a warm, fluffy blanket. Nor did family and friends deliver homemade casseroles to the newlywed parents. What Mary and Joseph got after the birth of their son was government persecution, forcing them to flee from their homeland to a foreign country. Sound familiar?

Szirtes writes in his poem, “The sea is a graveyard / the beach is dry bones.” I can’t help but think of the now-famous, distressing photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose family sought to escape political unrest in their native Syria, lying dead on a Turkish beach.

Of course, Kurdi’s death, gut-wrenching as it is, is only one case among many, illustrative of a global crisis. Jesus and his family were among the lucky ones who escaped persecution and were even able to return to their homeland, but that by no means lessens the tragedy that follows in Matthew’s gospel–Herod’s ordered massacre of all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. And it by no means lessens the tragedy of the refugee crisis, or our broken immigration system, or the national epidemic of gun violence. As the gospel writer mourns in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, so too we cry out:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matthew 2.18)

On this day, when the Church commemorates the massacre of the Holy Innocents, just days after the “silent night, holy night” of Christmas, we remember also those “holy innocents” of our own day, Kurdi included, and we pray:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by order of King Herod. Receive into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims. By your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Prayer of the Day for The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Words: George Szirtes
Music: Richard Causton
Oxford University Press

[Link to audio available here, accessed 26 December 2015]

The child on the dirtpath
finds the highway blocked
The dogs at the entrance
snarl that doors are locked
The great god of kindness
has his kindness mocked

May those who travel light
Find shelter on the flight
May Bethlehem
Give rest to them.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.


Stephen, Deacon and Martyr


On this second day of Christmas, I offer the following reflection on St. Stephen’s Day, originally written for Fling Wide the Doors, the 2014-2015 Advent and Christmastide devotional by the community of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago.ststephenicon

Stephen’s story is recorded in the book of Acts. He was appointed as one of the first deacons of the early church in order to care for those in need. Ultimately, Stephen’s preaching caught the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who ordered that he be stoned to death. In many Commonwealth nations, St. Stephen’s Day is called Boxing Day and commemorates the martyr’s ministry among the poor.

The twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task…” And they chose Stephen. – Acts 6.2-3, 5 (NRSV)

Nearly every Sunday for the past year, I have joined South Loop Campus Ministry to prepare sack lunches and hand-deliver them to our sisters and brothers living on the streets. What started rather by accident—when SLCM advertised “Free Food for College Students” and more than just the target audience showed up—has since turned into our most popular ministry.

See, this thing called Christianity is really all about food and feeding people. From its inception, the early church recognized the need to feed and care for people, and in Acts we are told they commissioned seven people to this task as deacons (literally, “servers”)—including Stephen, whose martyrdom we commemorate today.

Of course, our liturgical life also centers on food, in a special kind of meal entrusted to the pastor. But the ministry of diakonia, or table-serving, is entrusted to all of us—”the priesthood of all believers.” In the Eucharist we are refreshed and strengthened with holy food to love and serve and even feed our neighbor in return. So the Christian life is all about food and feeding.


SLCM students and leaders “Takin’ It to the Streets” on Lower Wacker (photo credit: Ben Adams, also for photo above)

One particular Sunday with SLCM, while were serving food on Lower Wacker, a brother asked us to pray for him. We joined hands around our shopping cart full of sack lunches and prayed, and it occurred to me in that moment that our cart is essentially our altar on wheels, around which we gather in community each week to give thanks and make and bless holy food for hungry people. Such is what diakonia means: the Christian life is all about food and feeding.

Before his martyrdom, Stephen concludes his speech with the indictment, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7.48). To be sure, he’s not claiming that God is not present in our places of worship but declaring instead that God is not limited to those places alone. God is just as present on Lower Wacker as God is at Addison and Magnolia or at Grace Place.

So this St Stephen’s Day I invite you to be mindful of where you encounter the sacred amid the quotidian, particularly among “the least of these.” Holy Trinity certainly has no shortage of opportunities to engage in this ministry of feeding.

Finally, I offer this quote, adapted from Gordon Lathrop, as a prayer, or perhaps a mantra, to carry with you today: “Christianity is a meal. Its members are table-servers. Let beggars come. Amen.”