As you turn toward the work of worship planning and sermon writing for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, you may notice that Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary leads us to the difficult text of Matthew 2 and the story known as the “slaughter of the innocents.” Some might be tempted to skip over it in favor of something more celebrative, continuing the carols of Christmas and the glow of Epiphany light. But, as pastor Chris Schoon reminds us, there is profound importance in engaging in worship that disturbs (“Worship that Disturbs,” p. 32). By disturbing our ordinary rhythms with difficult Scripture and stories, we learn that pain and suffering are not just something “out there,” but are a reality for many, both within and outside our churches. This gruesome story in Matthew might seem unnecessary and far removed from our context, but what if you look at it through the lens of those in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Haiti? What about places where there has been genocide and violence at the hands of dictators and corrupt governments? As you make your plans for Christmastide, consider meaningful ways to “disturb” in your liturgy and preaching to open up space for the Holy Spirit to move people toward peace and justice. Below you will find the work of two contributors who come at this text from very different angles—one through crafting liturgy, and the other through writing poetry.
I have a Christmas playlist. Mine is populated with music from across centuries and genres: traditional English carols, mid-century crooners, a little Mannheim Steamroller, and, of course, Slugs and Bugs’ “The Camel Song.”
Nestled among this cozy mix of Sufjan Stevens and Bing Crosby lies a particularly jarring setting of “Coventry Carol.” We often think of the “Coventry Carol” as a sweet lullaby, but it isn’t, and this arrangement by the King’s Singers from their album A Little Christmas Music reflects the sinister story that it tells. It opens with an ominous blast of brass and woodwinds, its crunchy dissonance invariably sending our kids skittering across the floor to skip the track as quickly as possible. As counterseasonal as it seems, though, I love “Coventry Carol,” and this particular arrangement is one of my favorites. It launches unflinchingly into the least Christmassy of stories: the one where, after failing to get accurate intelligence from the Magi, Herod kills all of Bethlehem’s boys under age two.
The impulse to skip over this story is common: when was the last time you picked up a Christmas card featuring the slaughter of the innocents? When did you last see the story backgrounding a Target ad? Or, for that matter, when was the last time you heard it preached? Part of our heritage as Reformed Christians is the willing reception of the whole witness of Scripture. When we skip parts of Scripture, we miss meaning. What might we miss if we skip Matthew 2:13–18?
We might miss the fact that Christ’s life—as well as his death—matters. As Reformed Christians, we find Christ’s death on the cross inescapably central. Yet, as Fredrick Bauerschmidt observes, “If all that mattered was that God became incarnate and died a human death, then it wouldn’t have made any difference if Jesus had died as a child rather than as an adult” (The God That Is Love, p. 29). In other words, it seems that our salvation required more than just the killing of God’s only Son.
The slaughter of the innocents throws this into vivid relief. Bauerschmidt’s what-if was not merely hypothetical. Without specific divine intervention, Jesus would have been killed in infancy by the same oppressive governmental structure that would end up killing him thirty years later. Matthew 2:13–18 should set our attention and imagination on how Jesus’ whole life on earth—his teachings, his miracles, his unchronicled years—were massively consequential.
Skipping this story might also make us miss a powerful call to discipleship. At first blush, Herod’s angry reaction might seem completely unrelatable—who could imagine giving such an order? Yet when we look more closely, we discover that Herod’s underlying motive is disturbingly widespread. We see how interest in Jesus can be driven by motives far less costly than love. As Herod shows, the impact of knowing Jesus without loving Jesus is incredibly destructive—and it is always the vulnerable who pay the price.
Herod is an extreme example, of course, but he’s not unique. For pastors, politicians, or any Christian living in largely Christian circles, there can be benefits from appearing “interested in Jesus.” Matthew 2 calls us to examine our habits and inclinations, to unmix our motives, and to ask the Spirit to purify our desires.
Skipping this story might also make us miss the foundational shift in reality ushered in by the Advent of Christ. The embodied Jesus Christ brings heaven and earth together. Herod (and all who follow in his footsteps) feel this instinctively, sensing that Jesus’ very presence as an existential threat. And Herod is right: Jesus is the firstborn of the new creation, and those who have bought into the power structures of the old creation are those who stand to lose the most. As we stand in this in-between era, with the new creation already inaugurated but not yet complete, we who hope are called to protect the vulnerable and lament injustice. It requires those of us who find hope in Christ’s new creation to live as if it were true—because it is.
As you think about how to engage with this story in your worship, consider using the following liturgy of lament.
Liturgy of Lament
Call to Confession
We pray with the psalmist:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Let us pray this prayer of confession,
a prayer of honesty,
remembering that the one who hears
is always more ready to listen than we are to confess.
Prayer of Confession
Holy and loving God,
you are steadfast and faithful.
But we struggle with faithfulness.
We wrestle with wholeheartedness.
Like Herod, our interests are mixed.
If we’re honest,
we know we’ve been trying to follow Jesus
without leaving the path we’re on.
We’ve fought to build our own kingdoms
instead of seeking yours.
And, as with Herod, our unchecked commitments
often hurt innocents the most.
By your Spirit, free us to worship Christ alone,
wholeheartedly laying down our gifts and our lives before him.
In the strong name of Jesus we pray, amen.
Assurance of Forgiveness
Hear the good news!
This is the message we have heard from him
and proclaim to you,
that God is light
and in him there is no darkness at all.
If we say that we have fellowship with him
while we are walking in darkness,
we lie and do not do what is true;
but if we walk in the light
as he himself is in the light,
we have fellowship with one another,
and the blood of Jesus his Son
cleanses us from all sin.
—1 John 1:5–7
Know that in Jesus,
God embraces you, forgives you,
and strengthens you to live a renewed life.
Thanks be to God.
Call to New Obedience
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 32
Q. Why are you called a Christian?
A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for eternity.
The Bible story known as the “slaughter of the innocents” (Matthew 2:16–18) has evoked poetry throughout time. As a poet who has trained as a pastor, I believe poetry must continue to wrestle with this horrifying story. Poetry is a uniquely adept form for handling the ineffable and the absurd. As poet Gregory Orr observes in his book A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry,
Poetry is compelling in a crisis not just because it is concise and immediate, but also because it is superbly designed to handle both aspects of experience: the reality of disorder and the self’s need for some kind of order.
It’s no wonder that some of our most gut-wrenching and ardent portions of Scripture, such as the books of Lamentations and the Song of Songs, are poems. So how can we liturgy and sermon writers better flex our poetic muscles, especially with challenging texts like the slaughter of the innocents? How might poetry open our imaginations to see this text through a new lens that will engage God’s people in worship? Here are several moments from my writing process that might guide your own reflection and engagement with this text.
- Poetry invites us to ask questions. I studied the text and the surrounding chapters, noting the questions that spontaneously bloomed. I asked the Holy Spirit to help me be open to the unexpected.
- I asked, “What kind of person and/or social structure would order and execute such genocide?” This question made me consider my poem’s perspective. Did I want to write as a bystander, or was I willing to put myself directly into the action? I decided that, as an act of empathy and insight, I needed to try to get inside the heads of those who murdered. I noticed fear in myself as I considered this option, so I prayed that God would give me strength and wisdom as I crafted a poem from the perspective of one of Herod’s soldiers. How might the different characters in this story inform your sermon writing and worship planning?
- During the writing journey, I tried to be open to surprising connections of imagery, words, and ideas. As I drafted the poem on Good Friday, I noted how Christ’s life began and ended with unfathomable injustice, and I considered how easily even the mundane can lead any of us to commit great evil. Where do we see this in our communities, nations, and world today? How might this story engage our context?
- Through the writing process I discovered common excuses we use to justify sin. The poetic writing process also gave me unique knowledge into God’s character and into the foibles and strengths of my own humanity.
I invite you to reflect on the poem below to further engage the story. Could this be something to send to your congregation ahead of your worship service to reflect on in preparation for hearing God’s Word?
One of Herod’s Soldiers in Bethlehem Speaks
Are traitors really rising from the crib?
When he axed his wife, she refused to speak.
His three sons also zipped up, not one quip
at the end. So why the wails here, the shrieks?
Don’t these people like the grain the King gave
them during famine? Judea can feed
Jew and Gentile if we just behave.
Why did those Magi come here and mislead
the town, upsetting the apple cart? Ah,
Herodium down the road has apples,
from Italy. They pair well with the spa—
those mikvehs are cleansing after battle.
Fine. If these babies don’t appreciate
their rex socius, then they’ve sealed their fate.