Some might call it snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. Something the Cubs are extremely good at doing. So, too, perhaps, the Church.
Just a couple of days ago we celebrated Christmas, arguably the most unabashedly positive, universally embraced, spiritually accessible of holidays. Who, even Scrooge, doesn't love Christmas and the God who chooses to come to earth as a beautiful, poor, powerless baby?
And then comes….the next Sunday. Today. The First Sunday of Christmas. And what is this worship service supposed to be all about??
The Slaughter of the Innocents. That's the "popular" name of the story found in Matthew 2:13-23, traditionally read and preached right after Christmas. Here God's angel tells Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus to flee to Egypt because King Herod, fearing Jesus is a threat, is coming to Bethlehem to kill him.
Fortunately, the Holy Family gets out in time. Yay.
Unfortunately, thousands of other infants aren't so lucky. According to the story, all children two years or younger in the Bethlehem area are ignominiously massacred.
It's hard to believe this stomach-churning baby bloodbath is the Bible's follow-up invitation to embracing the God who brought us Christmas Eve. All the criticisms of God, Christianity and the Bible as dangerously, unnecessarily violent can easily come once again, and loudly, front and center. I mean really, how could God have let this slaughter of innocents happen??? Especially as He made a concerted effort to get Jesus out safely.
Matthew's "day-after-Christmas" text can as easily drive us away from 'faith' as Luke's "day-before-Christmas" text drives us to it.
I have found some interesting possibilities open up, however, when looking at The Slaughter of the Innocents through the "comic lens." As morbid, or morbidly ironic, as that sounds.
The pivotal verse of the story, v. 16, contains a word that suggests there might be elements of comedy here:
"Tricking" is one of the mainstays of comic activity. Witnessing one party cleverly pulling the wool over another can provoke bales of laughter; that's the reason for the spectacular success of shows such as I Love Lucy and Candid Camera and the reason we all remember the Trojan Horse.
There are all sorts of tricksters in the Bible. The Wise Men provide a rather staid example, promising to return to Herod with news of the newborn King's exact location, but instead sneaking back to Persia via a route that doesn't even come close to Jerusalem. If Herod is feeling tricked, it's probably more because he set up an initial trick, asking the Wise Men to let him know where the royal Baby can be found so he can pay him "humble homage." That trick has spectacularly fizzled.
What I see happening here is Herod having a royal hissy fit when he realizes his trickster plans have been thwarted and instead, he's been double-crossed. His reaction is over-the-top and almost Three Stooges-like in unrealistic ridiculousness: "Well, I'll have to kill ALL the babies of Bethlehem to find Him then!" The original hearers of this story may not have been as disgusted about all of Bethlehem's babies dying (there's no historical evidence such a slaughter ever happened, anyway) as they would have been darkly delighted to hear a farce about how God led their nemesis Herod (already known as paranoid) into looking so grotesquely foolish. Especially because the object of Herod's rampage was already out of the picture.
What if this story was really about the perils of not getting the joke? Not being willing to acknowledge when you've been punk'd? Think of all the lives (and public goodwill) that would have been saved if only Herod could have said, albeit painfully, once he realized the Wise Men weren't coming back, "Ha Ha you've got me." ??
I think about Herod's outrageous reaction to being tricked when I think (painfully) about what the 9/11 terrorists were able to accomplish (as it were) with but a few thousand dollars and a couple of box cutters. America's response was to spend trillions of dollars and kill hundreds of thousands of people (compared to the 3,000 tragically lost on that day), and it still isn't over. What if we had said to the terrorists, "Okay, you cleverly fooled us, ha ha, and now, in proper Old Testament 'eye for an eye' fashion we'll retaliate by killing 3,000 of your people (or , in proper New Testament fashion, less), and move on...."
These are strange, hopefully helpful thoughts, from the Comic Lens....