Hespeler, 1 January, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Lamentations 1:1-7, Matthew 2:16-16, Psalm 44
t is a good thing, I suppose, that God made sure that Jesus, Mary and Joseph got out of Bethlehem before King Herod’s murderous men arrived. Three innocent lives were saved and, even more important, everything that the Messiah had been sent to accomplish was saved. But most people who read this part of the story (which, of course, we often don’t read at Christmas time because who wants to dwell on such things!) – those who do read it can’t help but ask: “Excuse me, but what about all of those other children two years old and under? Couldn’t they have been saved too?”
We modern people are not the first to be scandalized at these events. From ancient times, this little episode has been called by the name, “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” and considered to be one of the more scandalous events told in the Bible. In thousands of years, nobody has been able to come up with any good reason why innocent children should have been left to be slaughtered apparently just to cover the escape of the Christ child.
But, as awful as this story is, the Bible simply does not stop to explain it. God apparently knows that it’s coming – is able to send Joseph a very explicit warning in a dream – but doesn’t do anything to save any other children, and yet the Bible offers not a single word of explanation.
But that is, unfortunately, how the world generally works. Tragedies do happen. Crimes against humanity are committed. Terrible disasters take place and as much as we grasp for an answer to the question of why, we often just don’t get it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t an answer, of course, just that it isn’t coming our way.
And we hardly have to go travelling back in time two thousand years to find such a reason to be scandalized. I know that we are standing here on the very threshold of a new year, 2017, and that all kinds of people have been looking back at the year that just passed with a real spirit of “good riddance.” I know that lots of people have wonderful things that happened for them or for the people they loved in 2016, but the overwhelming story that seems to have been told on the year was pretty negative. We lost huge numbers of beloved celebrities and some of them in pretty shocking ways. The story of Aleppo and most of Syria went from bad to much, much worse. Many people are incredibly disturbed by the global turn in politics to what seems to be a particularly dangerous brand of right wing populism. So, while we’re not talking about events as egregious as the slaughter of the innocents here, we can understand the idea of not looking back on the recent past with a great deal of nostalgia.
So what are we to think of the idea that the Bible lets the slaughter of the innocents go by without a commentary? It would be a big problem, I think, if it did. But, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t. Yes, it is true that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t pause to explain the slaughter, but it does do, I think, something much more important: it pauses to lament. This is the commentary on the events that it does make: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through 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 are no more.’”
This is actually a remarkably significant response to a tragedy, but we might not recognize it as such because we live in a society that does not really acknowledge the importance of the activity known as grieving.
Oh, we do recognize that it is necessary, from time to time, to give some people a certain amount of time and space to grieve a significant loss. People are allowed, for example, to take some carefully restricted time off of work when someone they love has died. We tolerate a certain number of tears, a limited amount of time when a grieving person may indulge in a reasonable amount of melancholy. But we don’t really have a whole lot of patience for that kind of thing. If people let it go on for what we consider to be “too long,” we don’t have any trouble telling them so.
Even as we engage in pop psychology which talks about the various stages of grief that people have been observed to go through, we tend to turn that into a prescription for where people are supposed to be in their process of grief – telling people, “Don’t you think that you have spent enough time engaging in ‘anger’ and ‘bargaining’; isn’t it time that you moved on to ‘acceptance”?”
Underneath all of our thinking on the subject seems to be the assumption that grief is actually a sign of weakness and that we really ought to put it aside as quickly as possible so that we can get back to being productive contributors to the economy. And this is probably especially true when it comes to our response to negative events and horrible crimes such as the slaughter of the innocents. The time spent mourning the disaster is considered to be wasted time and the assumption is that it really only gets in the way of the work of retaliation which usually includes declaring some sort of war upon the people or ideas that are held responsible for the disaster. (Think, for example, of how western nations dealt with the terrorist act on September 11, 2001. That was the pattern.)
And, frankly, the people who wrote the Bible (such as the writer of the Gospel of Matthew) would look at our attitudes and find us extremely foolish. They recognized that grief was extremely important work; work that (if it wasn’t done) would definitely get in the way of the kinds of solutions and responses that were actually helpful. You see, they understood some things about the human condition that we seem to have forgotten.
It works this way. We human beings have been designed by God in some pretty ingenious ways. I happen to believe that the particular mechanism that God used to design us was the process that modern science has come to call evolution and because of that, science has given us some wonderful new tools to understand that design. One thing that has become clear, for example, is that we have been designed to prioritize survival. What that means is that, when you are faced with a dangerous or traumatic situation or when people or things that are important to you are taken away, there is a process that takes over your brain in order to help you to survive that.
The part of your brain that takes care of this is actually a fairly primitive part – a part that you can also find in far less sophisticated animals than humans. But that is fine because higher brain power is not what is needed immediately in that kind of situation.
When you are threatened, your brain knows that what you actually need is not to waste a lot of brain power analyzing what is happening to you or even making sense of it all. Instead your brain concentrates on two key things. First, its priority is to make sure that you simply survive. This primitive part of your brain takes over and leads you through your initial response. In a situation of threat, that may mean helping you to fight back or, if that is not the best solution, run away from the situation. In a situation of loss, that means doing whatever you need to do to get through the loss.
The other job that is very important at such moments is memory storage. Very clear and precise memories of the traumatic situation are stored in a part of your brain called the amygdala. These memories are not analyzed or interpreted, they are just stored there as episodes in living colour. This is also a matter of survival, of course, because once you have survived a dangerous situation, the important thing to do is to remember precisely how you did it because you may face such a situation again. This is why the memories of traumatic events are often so clear and vibrant even though you don’t really want to remember them at all. This is how we have been marvellously and beautifully designed for survival by a loving God.
But there is one problem with this design. It means that, after you have gone through a certain amount of loss, danger or trauma (things that are an inevitable part of life) you end up with these powerful and clear memories stored up in your amygdala. But, as they are not particularly pleasant memories, the tendency is to avoid them, keep them locked up and pretend that they are not there. But they are so powerful that they do not stay locked up forever and they don’t just go away. So the more you try to repress them, the more they manage to sneak out. They are often triggered in unexpected ways and that means that you can continue to react to the trauma or loss that you have suffered long after the original events in ways that can be destructive to yourself or others.
There is only one known solution to this problem and it is in a process that has also been graciously provided to us by God. That process is called grief. Going through grief is something that human beings have been doing since the dawn of civilization and probably long before. It is an activity that was very well known and seen as an essential part of life throughout Biblical times and, in fact, every scripture passage that we read this morning was an example of someone working through their grief by putting it into words.
We read from the Book of Lamentations which is an entire book that was devoted to someone (traditionally identified as the Prophet Jeremiah) expressing his grief over the destruction of the City of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Our psalm reading this morning is an example of an ancient communal exercise of grief as all the people come together before God to mourn something that they had all lost: a national defeat or setback. And then, of course, we have Rachel weeping for her children in the Gospel of Matthew: the ancient matriarch of the nation of Israel mourning for her lost children down through the ages.
Grief work is so important because what it does is takes those memories of trauma and loss that you have stored up in your brain – in your amygdala – and actually allows you to move them into a different part of your brain where they can actually be analyzed and given meaning. This is how you were designed to deal with these memories – to wait until the crisis is over and then take the time to take out those memories that you stored up in the time of loss or danger and figure out how they fit into the overall story of your life. This is exactly the kind of process we see people going through – with God’s understanding and help – in these biblical passages and similar ones to those we read this morning.
So when we see the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, and Rachel the ancient Matriarch and God himself joining together to mourn the terrible events of the slaughter of the innocents, this is not a failure to respond. It is a very important response. It is about processing such terrible events, finding their meaning and taking serious steps to destroy the power of such terror (which is, of course, what the entire rest of the gospel story is all about).
It is the first day of January, a day, traditionally, to make resolutions – to decide what changes you would like to make in your life in this New Year. That is why I have decided to spend several sermons this January talking about some resolutions we could make for 2017 that could really make a difference for good.
I would suggest that the first and maybe most important resolution you could make for this New Year is to practice some good grief. After all, how can you possibly do better at anything in this year that is coming until you first put aside the negative things, the losses and the disappointments of 2016 and, as I say, people seem to be saying that there have been a lot of them. Don’t be afraid to deal with what you have lost or feared in this past year. Don’t be afraid to grieve and mourn in whatever ways are necessary to you despite what anyone may have to say about it. Most of all don’t be afraid to ask for help as you go through such processes if you need it. May 2017 be a time of great blessing, especially, maybe, as you learn to grieve whatever there was in 2016 that needs to be grieved.