Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Holy Innocents

Friday was the Festival of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates the baby boys of Bethlehem as martyrs:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, 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 which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." (St. Matthew 2:16-18, RSV -- which is also part of the Gospel reading for today, the First Sunday of Christmass.)
Holy Innocents' Day was also the occasion of the following letter from the Rev. Dr. David H. Benke, President of the Atlantic District, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod:

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Greetings in the Precious Name of Jesus, saints of the Lord!

This word of encouragement is being sent to pastors, teachers, deacons, and parish leaders in the Atlantic District, LCMS. During 2008 it is my plan to send six such letters to you on specific church festivals or saints’ days that I have selected. These include:
  December 28, 2007 — Holy Innocents, Martyrs
  March 25, 2008 — The Annunciation of our Lord
  May 5, 2008 — Commemoration of Frederick the Wise, Christian Ruler
  July 28, 2008 — Commemoration of Bach, Schutz, Handel, musicians
  September 16, 2008 — Commemoration of Cyprian of Carthage, Bishop, Martyr
  November 19, 2008 — Commemoration of Elizabeth of Thuringia, renewer of society

In the midst of the onrushing celebrations and family duties compressed into the twelve days of Christmas, we are stopped short on the 28th day of December by the remembrance the first martyrs of the Christian era. These are the holy innocents slaughtered by King Herod as told in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 2. It is a cautionary story, with the added tension of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt under the threat of death by the sword.

Here, in “The Massacre of the Innocents” by Guido Reni, we see the horror of the spectacle unfolding:

Mouths open in horror, mothers and children hope against hope for their redemption. And it will not come on this side of heaven. These baby boys (from estimates of six to 144,000!) under the age of two are called Innocents for obvious reasons.

We might be tempted to reflect differently on their holiness or their martyrdom from our Lutheran perspective on original sin. But our Missouri Synod is in agreement with the Church through the centuries, in calling these baby boys both Holy and Martyrs (Lutheran Service Book, xii). Declared holy by the blood of the One who fled with his parents and later died for them. Declared martyrs because their lives were taken for the sake of the Infant King.

What is the call of God upon us today in our parishes and ministries when it comes to the most vulnerable and fragile in society? What is the call of God upon us today when it comes to those in full flight from terror and injustice? What is the call of God upon us today from the relative safety of our parish bases in New York, USA, to those who are being left behind and led as lambs to the slaughter?

My own reflection always begins with the way I spend my time and energy, the resources I have been given by God. So I would encourage us first of all to fervent prayer, private and corporate:

For an end to abortion on demand in the United States of America. Here the unborn, most vulnerable of all, die by the millions each year.

For refugees and asylees and those agencies seeking to place people who are forced to run for their lives because of unjust and violent governments.

For orphans and foster children and those agencies seeking to place them. Their compelling and urgent need for love in family breaks open our hearts.

Secondly, I am led to ask us to seek to do more. I know of the efforts of many of you to support crisis pregnancy centers. I am a founding board member of one of the most active centers, Pregnancy Help, Inc. Come to our Epiphany celebration on January 12 on West 14th and 8th Avenue and see infants, babies, toddlers and children who are here on this planet because of the intervention of wonderful counselors who follow the Wonderful Counselor.

I know how many of us reach out to the youth in our communities who are in such need of an active and joyful faith community. When we set a District goal of raising up 200 homegrown mission leaders from among our youth and young people, it is precisely to engage with the Jesus who hit the streets every day, bringing the Gospel to those who are vulnerable to the currents of a secular age. I know that we have tremendous and active confirmation, first communion and baptismal classes. Let’s pray and work to expand them in 2008! I know that we have missionaries and mission field developers, as well as many congregations working with those who have had to flee from their homeland in fear of their lives due to political and religious pressure. Are we able to reach beneath the cracks and into the seams of those lives with hope, with immigration assistance, with the Jesus who began his life with his parents as one of the disenfranchised asylees, heading purposefully to a pagan land in order to avoid terror at the hands of his own earthly king?

Finally, I would challenge us each and all to be convicted and convinced of the directions we will take in 2008 from God’s Word and God’s Church. We are called to lead, serve and engage in the here and now. We are called to lead, serve and engage not from a position of weakness, but from the position of ultimate strength and courage given us by Christ whose precious blood shed, whose innocent suffering and death for us leads us to state with assurance – “that I may be His own, and live under Him in His Kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.” We poor miserable sinners are then and always declared Holy Innocents in being, living and serving. Have a wonderful 2008!

With love in Christ,
Dave Benke

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Thanks to President Benke, who posted this on ALPB Forum Online. This is the kind of letter one hopes to receive from his Bishop, which Dr. Benke is in everything but formal title.

1 comment:

Ryan Schwarz said...

Its also interesting to ponder whether the LCMS "conservatives" who so desperately wanted to tar and feather Dr. Benke a few years back could possibly find anything objectionable in that letter, presuming a minimally fair-minded look at it.