Holy Innocents

Holy Innocents, St Georges - A sermon preached by Revd Ivo Morshead

Jeremiah 31.15-17; 1 Cor 1.26-29; Matt  2.13-18

For I will restore health to you and your wounds I shall heal, says the Lord; Jeremiah 30 v 17.

Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, Jer 31 v 16

It is only three days after Christmas and we have in front of the altar the scene of the nativity with the Shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. This scene will at Epiphany, in two weeks time on January 6th, have the three kings added to the cast. Thereafter it will remain until Candlemas on 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas when the infant Christ is brought to the temple for the custom of the what was known as the Feast of Purification common to all women 40 days after giving birth. No doubt we too still have our decorations in place and the Christmas cards that we have received on mantel piece or wherever or however we display them.

It is good to read of new grandchildren and great grandchildren and the joy they have brought to their parents and grandparents. The variety of cards we received is truly amazing . It being Christmas of course all cards of a religious nature depicted something to do with the birth of  Jesus from the New Testament, none directly mentioned or depicted an  incident or story  of  the Old Testament. One card in particular, however, had a painting known as the Mystical Nativity decidedly and firmly linking to the Old Testament and is printed on the front page of  todays Newsletter.

Botticelli painted that Mystical Nativity in about 1500 and the writing at the top of the painting reads I Sandro made this picture at the conclusion of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy. A fitting description of a time of plague and disorder of his time and indeed of our present time as we come to the end of 2014. We have the Ebola crisis threatening health, the senseless kidnapping of young girls in the Congo and the awful massacre of the children  of soldiers in Pakistan to say nothing of the thousand upon thousand child refugees from the fight in Syria and elsewhere. We have no shortage of Innocents to remember on this Feast of the Holy Innocents being the commemoration of the command of King Herod to slaughter all male infants under two years of age.

In this painting by Botticelli the Christ child is not lying in a manger but if we look more closely we can see he is lying on a funeral shroud. The child is pointing up not to his mother Mary but rather to the donkey whose whole body dominates the central background of the painting and whose black marking of the Cross is fully emphasised. Botticelli means us to see what is to come. His aim is to show the  journey on the donkey to Egypt away from the danger of the marauding soldiers of Herod. The end of the Christ child’s life is depicted in the mark of the Cross on the donkey, a sign of the ultimate destination in adulthood of the Son of God. Jesus, one wholly Innocent, sacrificed for the sins of many that we may be freed from sin.

For many the Christian emphasis on sin is an anathema. The great majority of us do our best to live honestly, to tell no lies, to give to charity, and generally keep the ten commandments. Why then does this service not only begin with a general confession and absolution, and then repeat this reference to sin in the words of the Lord’s prayer Forgive us our trespasses, and finally we sing together the Agnus Dei, Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, said or sung twice and ending with Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace?

The answer lies in the fact that we inherit sin as part of humanity. Not that our birth is sinful in any way but rather we live as we do because of what has happened in the past and it is good to be reminded of them especially on this Feast of Holy innocents. There are a multitude of instances. One obvious one is the slave trade from which Britain derived a great deal of wealth, another the government factories with square miles of opium cultivation in India in the most fertile part of the country so as to export to China the drug the money from which was used to balance our payments deficiency cause by the importation of tea, and closer to home, yet often forgotten, in the exploitation of the poor and child labour.

I have been reading a book called Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey. It’s subtitle is ‘The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty’. I had not realised before I read this book that the United Kingdom in 1870 provided one half of the world’s coal needs. The export of coal was the equivalent then of the world’s oil fields of today, It brought in fabulous wealth for the few and a basis for a sound income to the  balance of payments for the nation as well as providing the wherewithal of the power needed in the growing industrial national supremacy in the cotton mills and foundries that gave employment to those driven by poverty away from agriculture to the city. Most of us are aware of the children in the cotton mills crawling under the looms but not known of the 6 year olds, boys and girls of that age known as trappers. They remained in the pits in total darkness for up to 18 hours stationed at the trap doors which controlled the flow of air and which had to be opened and shut whenever a tram load of coal came through from the pit face or returned empty from the pit head. Their pay was 30 pence a week and they only saw daylight at certain times of the year on one day in 7.  The conditions under which the coal was hewn were appalling even up to the last century. In 1911, 2000 miners were killed and 160,000 injured out of the 1 million men and boys employed at that time.

This feast of Holy Innocents can in a positive sense awaken us to our need at all times to be aware of past and present wrongs. I am privileged to preside over week day communion services both here and at Saint Mary Abbots. Often there is only a handful or even just one other present but we say as reverently as we can Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the  world, have mercy upon us, on behalf of us all.

The passage from Jeremiah read today, as our first lesson, is part of what is known as The Little book of Consolation. The people of Israel are in deep distress, as Jeremiah wrote your pain is incurable. Yet as a prophet in the Old Testament, he was able to say For I will restore health to you and your wounds I shall heal, says the Lord;

For we who are New Testament people we have assurance of the Resurrection that followed the mark of the Cross. May we in the new year of 2015 that is upon us heed the words of  Paul to the Corinthians in the epistle and Consider our own call. One way might well be to add the agnus dei to our daily prayers to help us realise the world’ needs and see how we can help remembering how as we shall sing  soon in this service, the Agnus dei ends with the phrase grant us peace. May we all be granted a year of peace in the year ahead in our lives and in the world.
Holland Park Benefice