From David’s Harp to Praise Songs in the 21st Century


Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History, Oxford: Lion Hudson Plc (2011)

ISBN: 0745953247 / 9780745953243

263 pages, illustrated, hardcover from $AU 29.50 online.

In Australian Libraries: http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/203573249

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

Tim Dowley is a church historian who has written biographies of J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. Christian Music is an historical survey of everything musical in Christian worship from David’s harp to 21st Century praise music. It covers contemporary Christian music on every continent, including Australian and the Pacific, and every style of music from choral to hymns to instrumental.

It was good to be reminded of the rise of Christian rock and the banning of early practitioners like Larry Norman, 1970s pioneer of “Jesus Music”, and to see his place in the development from Gospel to praise music.

The strength of this book is its breadth, and the clarity with which such a wide range of music is described. It is beautifully and generously illustrated adding a further dimension of understanding: depictions of early instruments with comments on their accuracy are a great aid to understanding a little better how the music of each period sounded. A few screenshots show the development of musical notation and its impact on composition without drowning the reader in technical description, and sensitive portraits make the viewer ponder the sensibility of individual composers.

Seven specialist contributors take the reader to places where Dr Dowley was not so familiar: Dr Mark Evans is the guide for Australia and the Pacific, Lisbon-based Orthodox priest the Reverend Dr Ivan Moody explores Orthodox music.

Of course, breadth leads to mistakes of over-simplification. Gustav Mahler, for example, whose music has a complex and intentional Christian dimension, is dismissed in a sentence: “Gustav Mahler, a convert to Catholicism, confessed he could not compose a mass because he could not affirm the Credo.” (p.165). In contrast the sceptic Verdi and the Jewish Mendelssohn rightly receive one page and three pages respectively for their efforts in writing music around Christian themes (p.162, pp.159-161).

To produce a book like this, charmingly presented, wide-ranging and clearly written, of course involves many choices about inclusions. It is too easy to nit-pick on the basis of what has been left out. What has been left in covers a huge range of material placed in a narrative which reveals the dynamism, inventiveness and beauty of music inspired by Christian faith and used in Christian worship.

It will remain on my shelf as a reference and a companion to treasure.

Dr Tim Dowley

Alan Blackwood: Builder of Men


Alan Blackwood is dead, and I salute my former house-master and colleague.

Boys nicknamed Alan “Hoont”, and it was a sort of joke that we all knew why. I never did. I always spelt it in my mind “Hund”, as in the German for “dog”, but that’s the last thing you’d call Mr Blackwood.

As a figure of authority – he was Deputy Headmaster for over 30 years – Alan Blackwood had an extraordinary sense of justice. He believed in corporal punishment and regularly handed out 4 or 6 lashes of the cane for serious offences, but boys rarely felt treated unfairly.

He was always for me an exemplar of manhood. Alan was a big man who held himself well with practised military bearing. He carried the mystique of having served in Special Forces during the war. He spoke less about this experience than Headmaster Peter Moyes, who was also reticent to describe his time in Z Force.

When I returned to the school, I worried about how he would receive me as a colleague. On my first day as chaplain, I called him “Mr Blackwood.” He surprised me with a warm smile. “It’s Alan,” he said, “now you call me Alan.” He turned out to be the easiest of colleagues, supportive, friendly and helpful. In particular on the five-man School Executive, Alan was the encourager, the man who could see how others’ vision could be put into action.

As his chaplain, I never really found out what Alan believed. I suspect he had seen things so horrible in the war, things that human beings should never see, that he had suspended his belief in God. But he also must have seen some special padres, and he held my office in high respect. He fought against measures to dilute the effects of Chapel-going. On the other hand, he did not disguise his contempt (in private, at least) for a chaplain colleague who was not, in his opinion, up to scratch.

Many Old Boys and staff were closer to Alan than I was. But I knew him as a decent, upright human being who loved Christ Church and showed many boys how to be men.

Invasion, Survival or Celebration: A Native Australian’s Day


Ngaala kaaditj Noogar moort keyen kaadak midja boodja

We acknowledge Noongar people as the original custodians of this land. In particular, on this Australia Day in this place, Busselton, I acknowledge the Wardan people, the Noongar sea people, who have walked this part of Noongar boodja for tens of thousands of years.

Reconciliation Australia puts before Australians three options for marking January 26: for many Indigenous Australians, this date can only be remembered as the anniversary of the British invasion, with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney. For others, they celebrate the survival of their culture despite every hostile attempt to destroy it. For others, it is a day of celebrating the rich culture brought to this country by Europeans and shaped as well by indigenous and later migrant influences.

As a wedullah man, I tread carefully in this conversation. I am a native, but not indigenous. I have held positions of authority, and as a white man with a privileged education, I can make no claims to share the lot of the powerless.

January 26 also happens to be the anniversary of my baptism in 1949, so today is also coloured by being claimed by Christ. My formation in Christ leads me to seek confrontation only if it will lead to reconciliation, and to rejoice in human culture only if it reflects in some way divine creativity.

Noongars had a different experience of white settlement than Aborigines in the Eastern States. Firstly, contact with individual ships of explorers and lost traders was earlier than on the East coast and it seems that Noongar elders developed some strategies for welcoming wedulahs into their midst. While they didn’t count on the level of violence the wedulahs would bring, it seems they were not so much on the back foot as were the Sydney mob. The Noongars lost land – and that was and is a calamity – but they did not entirely lose the initiative. They can be proud of Yagan and others who resisted the newcomers.

Because Western Australia was not founded as a convict settlement, ownership of land was open to all classes of people. In the 19th century, some aborigines owned farms. It was only in the early 20th that discriminatory laws deprived most Noongar farmers of those properties.

Those who see today as Invasion Day, whether Aboriginal or whitefella, tend to have an Eastern States-centric view of history. The predominant emotion of their history-telling is anger. This anger provides energy in the search for social justice, in the genuine attempts to close the gap, in the attempts to empower Aboriginal and Islander people to take a prime role in Australian society. Australia needs to feel the fire of that anger and to be moved by it to make a more equal community.

Those who want to mark today as Survival Day are conscious of the extraordinary achievements of Aboriginal culture. I am constantly thrilled by new (to me) rock paintings and dance that are dazzling, complex, ancient and contemporary. Some proponents of Survival Day are upbeat and invite people to celebrate the glories of Aboriginal culture and its resilience against the odds. Others mark Survival Day with a grudging pride, a sense of “You have to admit it: Aboriginal culture has something special. How sad that it was nearly lost.”

Others want to celebrate the possibilities of Western culture and the tempering influence Aboriginal culture can have on it. It took courage for Jessica Mauboy to sing “Advance Australia Fair” at the Award Ceremonies last night. I am sure some will bring out choice epithets to describe her acceptance of the invitation to sing as a betrayal. But I’m sure Mauboy saw it the other way around: people would be impressed the quality of her singing regardless of her race, but, even so, she brought to her rendering of the Anthem resonances from her background.

Jessica Mauboy sings the national anthem – a brave gig? Photo courtesy Crikey.com.au

It’s true that whitefellas in particular can celebrate today in a spirit of forgetfulness as if the first inhabitants don’t exist. They mark Australia with the ongoing tag of terra nullius. They should be called out for their hypocrisy.

But as an Australian native, I want to celebrate much about this country: its natural attributes, and its people, some of whom have fled from fear and oppression in 2013, some whose great-great-grandparents made the dangerous boat trip from Britain 200 years ago, and others who ancestors crossed the land-bridge from Indonesia 60,000 years ago. It’s a rich mix and a beautiful blend.

I respect people who choose to mark today as one or other – Invasion Day, Survival Day or Celebration of a Nation. But personally I want the three together – the anger, the pride and the joy all make sense, and I hope extend my hand to Noongars and Aboriginal people around Australia.

Jonah and the Projection of his Dark Side


Sermon 25 January 2015

Epiphany 3

St George’s, Dunsborough

There have been Christians in Iraq since the earliest times, probably as long as, or even longer than there have been Christians in Syria. The Iraqi Christian community may be the oldest continuous Christian community in the world. In recent years, their numbers have been decimated. In 1987, there were 1.4 million or about 8% of the population. We should not have been surprised that Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister, was a Christian. By 2010, the number had dropped to between 200,000 and 400,000.

The terror group calling itself Islamic State in Syria and the Levant has reduced the number of Christians even further; and, it should be said, the number of Yezidi, and Shia Muslims, and even Sunni Muslims who are not intense enough in their beliefs, all have been reduced by ISIL.

ISIL proclaimed its “caliphate” in Mosul just across the river from the ruins of Nineveh, and made its destructive presence felt not only in beheadings and mass executions but also by blowing up Jonah’s tomb, not because they had anything against Jonah, who is also a prophet in Islam, but because their brand of fundamentalism worries that people might worship the shrine instead of the God to whom it is dedicated.

Even so it’s not immediately obvious why Jonah is an exemplary prophet. The rabbis debated as to whether Jonah should be included in the Bible, and many Protestant scholars regard him as a failed prophet.

His story is told as a four chapter novella – a fictional form. Whether there’s history or not behind the story is your judgement call. In the first chapter, God told Jonah to go and proclaim to Nineveh, the largest city in the world. Go to New Delhi; or go to Shanghai; go to Nineveh. But Jonah booked a passage for Tarshish. That’s like buying a ticket for South America. He headed as far as possible in the opposite direction.

Then “the Lord hurled a powerful wind on the sea. Such a violent tempest arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” (Jonah 1:4) The terrified sailors each cried out to their own gods. Jonah went below and went to sleep. He didn’t help. He didn’t even pray. This storm, he knew, was his doing, and he was still running from responsibility.

Eventually the sailors drew lots to discover who was the cause of the storm. Jonah drew the short straw. The sailors questioned Jonah, who then – at last – began to preach. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). This made the sailors more frightened and the storm grew worse and worse until Jonah offered to be thrown overboard.

It’s only then that the storm stopped. Many commentators believe that the storm was an internal storm. It was happening in Jonah’s head. It was telling of his emotional state. Denying his responsibility caused turmoil within him. The moment he took responsibility the storm stopped. But he didn’t admit full responsibility. The admission was squeezed out of him. So a further step had to be taken before Jonah was behaving like an adult.

As the storm calmed, a big fish swallowed Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. Three days and three nights is a significant period in the Bible. One life ends and a new life begins. Sometimes the bible talks about two days, sometimes three days; sometimes it talks about a new life beginning “on the third day”. It all means the same. You can easily get confused with the numbers, just like when you are talking with a travel agent about a travel package – a week’s holiday might be six days. Two days, three days – it depends when you start counting from – but it always signals a transition time.

So in the fish’s stomach for three days Jonah told God how sorry he was, and after the transition time, the Lord commanded the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. (2:10)

All that was being mulled over in his head, stirred up, with that feeling in the pit of his stomach, unable to see the way ahead, suddenly became calm and light: Jonah could see the way ahead.

The Lord then gave Jonah a second chance to go to huge Nineveh, the enormous city, and proclaim the message that the Lord will give. Jonah’s message was five words in Hebrew, the shortest and most effective sermon ever. “Forty days until Nineveh’s overthrown!” ‘

Much to Jonah’s surprise the people heeded Jonah’s message: they repented. The king, the people, the cattle, the sheep, everyone repented; and so whole-heartedly that God repented too and decided not to destroy the city.

“This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry.” (4:1) Chapter 4 is wonderful comedy starring the irate Jonah. God appointed a little plant to grow over Jonah and shade his head to rescue him from his misery. And “Jonah rejoiced with great joy” (4:6) over the little plant.

But then God sent a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah was furious about the destruction of the plant. God mildly made the point that God was concerned about destroying a mega-city with more than 120,000 people – plus animals – and Jonah was concerned about one plant.

If it wasn’t so tragic, Jonah’s story would be funny.

Jonah was not at ease in his own skin, he was a prophet who ran away, who was churned up inside about his vocation, and the story reveals what happened when these inner emotions were allowed out.

Rather than take responsibility Jonah was quite happy to let a ship full of sailors break up and go down. When he got to Nineveh, he was still a reluctant prophet. He went only one day’s walk into the city. He preached only five words. He pronounced the destruction of an entire city.

There’s an old riddle: how do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A liturgist is an expert in how things go in worship, what colour you should use for what season, what vestment you should wear, what gestures you should make. What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist. The joke is funny only because negotiation is not what terrorists do. They hold to ransom. They demand. They stipulate destruction.

Jonah’s job, on the other hand, was to “proclaim”. The difference between “proclaiming” and “stipulating” may be difficult for a fundamentalist to grasp, but for the rest of us, “proclaiming” includes “engaging with”. Jonah was supposed to learn that his task involved discussion, persuasion and responsibility. Instead he contemplated the annihilation of the biggest city in the world.

God does not work through mass destruction, whether it is the massacre of journalists in Paris or the beheading of Christians in Iraq.

Jonah’s story brings us up short with its perceptive psychology. It’s not really about recruitment for ISIS. It’s about us and how we can be like Jonahs in our own homes and in our own communities.

When we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, we can become manipulative and destructive towards others. We blame. We blame God. We blame people who are different. We blame people who are close to us. We confuse our feelings with the world outside. The dark side of Jonah leads me to create a check-list so that I don’t end up like him caring more about the life of one little plant than a whole community.

  • Am I leaving others room to make their own decisions?
  • Am I really taking responsibility for my own actions?
  • Am I acknowledging my changing moods and feelings?
  • Am I really prepared to repent, and to change?
  • Am I open to God so that God’s love can flow through me to others?

“No sign will be given this adulterous and sinful generation,” declares Jesus, “except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4, Luke 11:29). Jesus rescues Jonah’s reputation on two counts. Firstly, Jonah and Jesus both sleep through a raging storm, and then with the stilling of the storm it is revealed who is the Creator of the sea and the wind.

Secondly, Jonah’s three days in the big fish, being swallowed at the end of his old life of denial and being disgorged to a new life of obedience, pre-figure the three days Jesus spends in the earth between the crucifixion and the resurrection, entering the tomb a dead man and rising to new life for all people.

By that calculation, Jonah is far from being a failed prophet. He’ll go on causing laughter and discussion and leading us into deeper insight into being real before God.

Vocation: consistent, constant and insistent


Sermon for Epiphany 2 – St George’s, Dunsborough

18 January 2014

I Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” (I Samuel 3:1) That may not have been surprising. Eli was old, frail and nearly blind. He couldn’t see how corrupt his two sons were, partly because he was a doting father, and he didn’t want to believe that his offspring could be the stand-over merchants they were. His eyesight was failing, and as they say, “There are none so blind as so those who do not want to see.”

Maybe Eli’s end of life fatigue made him deaf to the word of the Lord. He wasn’t even in the Temple when the word of the Lord came, and the eternal lamp was only just flickering.

Little Samuel, on the other hand, was right inside the Temple, but he was naïve. He didn’t know what the word of the Lord was. There was nothing to hear because Samuel didn’t know then that there could be anything to hear.

So the word of the Lord was infrequent. I don’t think that means that the Lord had given up on his side. God still spoke consistently. People just listened infrequently.

We’re just human, after all. When I was about eight, my big brother said to me, “Don’t let them,” (them meaning our parents) “Don’t let them teach you how to milk the cow, or else you’ll get the job.” I never did learn how to milk a cow! We all arrange things so we won’t get called up to do some task or another, and we justify it to ourselves some way or another. But in the end, it’s avoiding the responsibility of a relationship.

Eli hadn’t taught Samuel how to listen because Eli knew what was likely in store for Samuel: a call to minister to the Lord in the Temple. But the Lord persisted, as the Lord does. The Lord woke Samuel, and Eli sent him back to bed telling him he was mistaken. He hadn’t heard a voice. How ridiculous! God doesn’t call people. The word of the Lord is rare.

Three times the Lord called. Three times Samuel answered, “Here I am, for you called me,” and three times Eli sent him back to bed.

Eli knew that both Samuel and he had to take on this responsibility. Samuel had to respond to this call from God, and Eli had to mentor him to become a spiritual leader. Both Eli and Samuel were called up to duty, to take up the responsibilities God had for them. So on the fourth occasion, Eli gave Samuel the instruction to reply, “Speak, Yahweh, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (3:9-10).

God did have something to say. It wasn’t actually the case that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. God had been calling Samuel before that night. God called Samuel repeatedly that night. God continued to call Samuel all through his life from that night on. The name “Samuel”, “Sh’muel” in the original Hebrew, means “called by God”.

Shmuel

Of course these days, in 2015, in our sophisticated world, the word of the Lord is rare. I mean, who would admit to hearing God speak to them?

Or might it be the case that it is our deafness, our spiritual unwillingness to listen, that is giving the impression that the word of the Lord is rare? We don’t want to hear, in case we’re called up to do a task, and get caught up in a web of relationships having to be responsible. Count me out, we pray silently. We might get the job of milking the cow every morning.

But the uncomfortable truth is that God is consistent and insistent. He continues to call people to himself.

Nathanael, in this morning’s Gospel, was called through Philip. That was the moment Nathanael responded, but he was surprised to realise that Jesus had already called him. Jesus had already called him when he was sitting under the fig-tree, presumably studying the Old Testament. (The scholars say what else would a model Israelite be doing sitting under a fig-tree?)

The fact of being called is important in itself, important enough to be recorded in the Scriptures.

God continues to call us. Not just like Samuel, at the beginning of our Christian lives, to particular life-long tasks of ministry, although those calls are still valid and immensely important. I’m no longer able to run a parish or work as a school chaplain, but I still feel strongly under the call of 40, 60 years ago to be a teacher and priest. The shape of the tasks is different; the call is still there.

Just as I am called, you are called. As a priest, the sacrament of ordination makes visible the fact that I am called. But that sacrament testifies to a God who calls his people. God has been calling you; God is calling you, God will go on calling you.

We are obviously not all called to be priests. But we are called to be with God. This aspect of being called grows in importance as we grow older. Our calling is first of all to respond in love to that love which believes enough in us to be constant in calling us to him.

Our calling is to be loved. Beyond all the tasks, beyond all the busy-ness. God calls us to allow Him to love us. Before we begin to love God, before we begin to love others, knowing that God loves us.

There’s a well-known prayer by St Ignatius of Loyola that usually goes by the name of Suscipe, the first word of the prayer in Latin. Suscipe means “Take”. The prayer goes:

“Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all these to me. To You, Lord, I return it. All is Yours, dispose of it wholly according to Your will. Give me Your love and Your grace, for this is sufficient for me.”

       “Give me Your love and Your grace, for this is sufficient for me.”

Take a moment now in your place to be aware that God is calling you. God has been calling you; God will continue to call you. If you are comfortable in doing so, close your eyes. … … … Be aware of your name, your Christian name, the name by which God claimed you at baptism, the name by which God welcomes you into his nearer presence, and be aware of God calling that name.

In your heart, say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”… … … In the quiet, in the silence, continue to hear that loving voice speak your name; and hear whatever else He is saying to you. … … …

The Lord is with you.

Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus

No longer Charlie


Je ne suis plus Charlie

Neither my wife Rae nor I enjoyed the Southern banquet we attended in Durham, North Carolina. Right from the start the tone was didactic. We were the only guests and our hosts were determined to teach us culturally ignorant Australians about their superior way of life.

Our hosts’ hospitality consisted not in the warmth of their welcome but in the extravagance of food and drink. The display of wealth was meant to indicate how worthy the hosts were: wealth had come to them because they were good people.

Our conversation turned to those who were not beneficiaries of wealth. Poor people, our hosts asserted, were poor because they did not have the right qualities to attract wealth. They weren’t good enough. In particular they recalled the black Americans of their youth on their plantation, who were poor, lazy and dependent on the benevolence of the hosts’ family. They used the word “Negro” for black Americans.

I’ve been taught that it is rude to contradict one’s host, so I countered this terrifying statement with my recollection of aboriginal families who lived on our farm and the ambiguity of their situation. I tried to emphasise the cultural similarities, not the economic differences between black and white in each country.

As we drove home, Rae and I decided that the whole meal was a lesson in white superiority. We also thought that our hosts would be surprised that we thought this. They were blind to their prejudices. Husband and wife both were highly educated and both happened to be Episcopal clergy.

We saw this blind white superiority quite often in our two years living in the South. A fellow student, an Australian, got a holiday job in the construction industry. He was telling a group of students about working on the roofs of new houses. The white American students were aghast. “You didn’t go on the roof? White people don’t go on the roof.” We queried, “You mean you leave that for black Americans?” “Well, yes,” they said. When we pushed them, they said this colour difference was because they perceived working on the roof as more dangerous.

In his extraordinary speech on race, Barack Obama spoke of America’s “original sin” of slavery. Despite every American’s best intentions, this historical fact worms it way into contemporary life, making Americans appear both racist and hypocritical.

Not that Australians can boast. If America’s original sin is slavery, ours is dispossession. We Europeans declared the country void of human occupation and took it over for ourselves. Our leaders still use the language of terra nullius. Last November our Prime Minister told an international audience that before British invasion Australia was “nothing but bush”.

Outsiders see the apparently systemic disadvantage of Aboriginal people and wonder at the inability of ordinary Australians to see the disconnect between white attitudes and Aboriginal poverty, and our unwillingness to trace the causes back to that original act of dispossession.

Modern Western democracies have blind spots. Going back beyond the war in Algeria to its colonising of North Africa, France’s blind spot is the Maghreb: for the French, the “Arab” from Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria is the “Other”. French people have historically seen themselves as superior to those they deride as less cultured and sophisticated than they are. In particular, the North Africans are seen as inferior because they allowed themselves to be exploited. Add into this snobbery the French disdain for the pieds-noirs, the immigrants of French ancestry who lived in Algeria at the time of the Algerian war and who used their citizenship rights to return to France after the war. Many French-people blamed them for the disastrous war.

My friend and Third Order colleague Susan Pitchford drew my attention to an article by Thomas Chatterton Williams about the experiences of James Baldwin in Paris. Baldwin noted that absolute assurance of the French of the rightness of their approach to law and culture, and their “French-Algerian complexity” which enables them to denigrate anything from North Africa, and by extension, anything Muslim or Arab.

Baldwin in Paris

Charlie Hebdo is a magazine in a particular satirical tradition in France. Its design is to offend, on the principle that Emperors without clothes should be mocked. It trumpets the philosophy of liberté, freedom of expression, giving it licence to mock – in theory – any group in French society. I agree with the statement it its web-page: “Le crayon sera toujours au-dessus de la barbarie” – “The pencil will always be above barbarity”. But note: the French government censored Charlie’s recent attack on Jews. It is not good form to be anti-Semitic; however, Charlie Hebdo has used its freedom to offend Muslims, as a way of offending North Africans, with great frequency.

 

Obviously – at least, it is glaringly obvious to me – the response to being offended by religious cartoons is not to shoot ten people. If people use offensive language about Christ, I refuse to laugh; I may object in words; and I may discontinue my association with the offender. Violence is not appropriate. That is why I initially proclaimed “Je suis Charlie”: like millions of others, I wanted to be in solidarity with those murdered and their families.

 

But I now withdraw that solidarity. “Je ne suis plus Charlie”. I now want to stand with the friends of the Prophet, who continue to be offended by the imagery of their founder. Charlie Hebdo can go on publishing and drawing its contemptible pictures, but I now want nothing further to do with it.

Holy Massacre


Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

St George’s, Dunsborough, Christmastide 2014.

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (Chapter 2 beginning at the 13th verse):

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘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.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘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.’

[NRSV]

The Gospel of our Lord:
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of God the Creator, who was born a human being, and lives among us as Spirit. Amen.

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under.” (Matthew 2:16)

The shock of a psychopath in power. In the 20th Century, Stalin behaved something like Herod. The sad thing is that we remember the psychopath and not the names of his victims. Dmitri Volkogonov writes,

“Stalin personally signed 357 proscription lists in 1937 and 1938 that condemned to execution some 40,000 people, and about 90% of these are confirmed to have been shot. At the time, while reviewing one such list, Stalin reportedly muttered to no one in particular: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one.” “

 King Herod would resonate with that sentiment.

Mao Tse Tung reportedly killed 45 million people in four years. The records are carefully catalogued in the Public Security Bureau, and researchers can read about the violence Mao ordered and permitted, including deliberately starving the elderly to death because they couldn’t work efficiently. But scholars don’t write critically about Mao: it seems that the Chinese don’t want to face these horrors.

From what I understand, people also tried to forget Herod “the Great” as quickly as humanly possible.

Stalin, Mao and Herod. Eight children murdered by their mother in Cairns. A siege in Sydney by an unhinged Iranian. The horror of it all seems to have set out to spoil our Christmas. We want Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas to be Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer without a care, yet, with the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the church sets a trap for us three days after Christmas.

Christmas can easily become a fantasy, especially in our consumer-laden culture. People travel hundreds of kilometres to view Christmas lights, and where communities have some success with colour and light one year, householders compete with each other the next year to be brighter and more spectacular than their neighbours. Cummins, a little town on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, turns its RSL hall over to a Christmas Wonderland. Carols by Candlelight have become so commercial and so un-focused that I can no longer watch them or join in.

These sparkling displays at Christmas empty Christmas of meaning. And I know that conflict, the conflict between Christmas and Yuletide, has been going on for nearly two thousand years, so I’m not going to win that. But I do know that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is a necessary corrective for us each year. It shocks us out of a fantasy Christmas world back into the real world.

It points out again where God’s concern is in Christmas: not in the cute superficialities of new babies, but in the pain of child-birth, the challenge of poor families, the survival – or not – of refugee families.

God knows the name of each of the boys under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who was killed by Herod’s men. God knows the name of each peasant murdered by Ivan the Terrible. God knows by name each of those massacred by Stalin and Mao. God cares for each, as he cares for each of the children killed in Cairns, and weeps over their mother, Mersane Warria.

God can name 141 Pakistanis, 132 of them children, less than two weeks ago in a school in Peshawar.

·         Hamza Ali, 14 years old. Dead.

·         Farhad Hussain, 15. Dead.

·         Hamayun Iqbal, 14. Dead.

To God, the 141 killed last fortnight and the 41,000 Pakistanis in total killed by terror since 2001 are all beloved individuals.

God mourns for the lost lives of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson killed in Sydney; and unlike the tabloid press, God does not count Man Haron Monis as monster, but as a human being; he was damaged, disturbed, dangerous and responsible for his crimes; but still of immense value simply because he is a human being, God’s image in him marred and spoiled – as it is in each one of us.

So on the third day of Christmas, the church invites us to gaze compassionately on the horrors of the world. It takes courage, and sometimes it’s a little easier when we know that the victims are Holy Innocents.

We take seriously that God has taken human flesh, God became man in Christ. This means that he gazes through our eyes. God uses us to see. We are called upon to look with clearer focus; to be able to gaze without flinching on horror, and to allow Christ’s compassion to flow through us.

Some rather wonderful things happen when we allow this compassion to gaze through us: it transforms what we see.

First of all it turns victims into treasured human beings; we see them not just as people that happened to be in the way, but in Bethlehem as Jacob and Paran’s and Eliab and Naomi’s little boys, or in another massacre as someone’s lover, someone’s daughter, someone’s friend, someone’s father.

Secondly, this compassionate gaze shows Herod up for what he is – just a petty angry little man, not deserving the title of king. It shows that his values are bankrupt. We will have to deal with Herod as an individual, or someone does, but he is not the king he claims to be. In this story, we see clearly who is the king, who has the values of strength and love and care for his people – and that is God. The real claimant to the throne, not just of Israel, but of our lives, is revealed. God cares.

You may know the story Elie Weisel told of the men hung during the holocaust. As one boy struggled at the end of a rope, with the crowd being forced at gunpoint to watch minute after minute, a voice cried out, “Where is God in all this?” A man pointed to the struggling boy, and said, “There he is.”

God is in the midst of the pain and suffering. That is simply a re-statement of the Christmas message that God has come to live among us. Wherever there is pain and suffering, God is in the midst of it. God is in the outpouring of grief in Martin Place. God is in the fierce anger of the Pakistani government and people. God is in the bewilderment of the community in Cairns.

This God, the God who cares about our suffering, about our human condition, comes to surprise us at Christmas.

There are shepherds and there are wise men. The shepherds struggle. They struggle to make a living looking after the sheep of someone else. They struggle through long shifts in the cold and wet. They are tough, but life is hard. God’s news comes to them first, because God comes to share our struggles.

The wise men are learned astrologers. They know what is wondrous and amazing. God’s news comes to them too, because the coming of God as human being to share our suffering is wondrous and amazing. We are not learned astrologers. We need to be told over and over again.

God has become a human being and shares our suffering however horrific; and God with us is wondrous. Shepherds and wise men were there on the Third Day of Christmas. Glory to God in the highest!

Rachel weeps Artist: Sarah Hempel Irani http://vimeo.com/user13875354

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