Incarnation and the Holy Innocents

[1] Most preachers do not preach the Sunday following Christmas, and I sympathize. We are tired, have just finished Advent and Christmas and are looking forward to a Sunday off with our families or friends, perhaps a congregational carol sing with scripture readings of the gentler parts of the story of incarnation.

[2] However, to tell the story of the birth of Christ without including the slaughter of the innocents is to miss a central part of Matthew’s narrative. The slaughter of the innocents is not, and will never be, a Christmas card illustration. The text provides the disequilibrium that a modern congregation needs to experience as we encounter God as Emmanuel. In short, Matthew 2:13–23 tells us just what kind of world God became flesh in.

[3] It is tempting to get caught up in questions of historicity in this text. Did Herod the Great actually murder all of the boys ages 2 and under in Bethlehem? Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt? Did the Magi actually travel from the East, stop in to see Herod, and then go on to greet Mary and son at the house where they stayed? Wouldn’t Josephus at least have noted the first of those remarkable events?

[4] However, delving into questions of historicity in the birth narrative, especially this portion of it, quickly leads to missing the point entirely. My preaching professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Dr. Tom Rogers, said something I’ll never forget. When folks ask if the illustration or story you tell is “true,” respond honestly, “it happens every day.” In the case of a massacre of innocents and a flight of a family as political refugees into a foreign land, this is indeed the truth. This is the world God became flesh in and still dwells with us in.

[5] A few weeks ago I happened to begin reading about the Second Congolese Civil War, and was astounded by a simple fact — one that I should have known, but I did not, nor did a single member of my congregation, my husband, or many friends I asked. More people have died in that conflict than in any other since World War II, and more than in any conflict in the history of Africa. Between 1998 and 2008 an estimated 5.4 million people have died, mostly of causes related to poverty, disease and starvation that arose due to the war, and millions more have been displaced.1 Even though the war officially ended in 2004, the fighting continues in the Eastern DRC and the death toll is rising. One of the most disturbing aspects of the conflict is the use of child soldiers by all sides. Even with the conflict supposedly over, the practice of recruiting and conditioning children to fight is entrenched and ongoing in the Eastern DRC.2

[6] The children who have died in this conflict, who have starved, who have become refugees, or who have been manipulated or forced to become killers to prevent their own brutal deaths are among the Holy Innocents. Yes, the story of Herod’s fear and willingness to slaughter for political power, the story of Rachel weeping for her children, the story of a family fleeing to a foreign land as refugees from a slaughter is an ongoing story that is the womb and birthplace of the incarnation. This is the world that God became flesh in.

[7] But a preacher cannot stop at that. It is not enough to remind us of the innocents who continue to be brutalized in the name of power, economics, and politics. It is also our task to lift up why God would become flesh in the context of a massacre.

[8] As Lutherans, the cross is central to not only our theology of redemption, but also the theology of the incarnation. “It is here, on the cross that God meets us. Here God makes himself present hidden in weakness, vulnerable, suffering, forsaken, dying.”3 The massacre of the innocents as the womb and birthplace of the incarnation begins Jesus’ ministry in the same type of setting as where it culminates — the unjust suffering of the innocent. We are reminded that incarnation is not about finding Jesus in the beautiful, peaceful places in life (which scenes of the stable and Bethlehem have become on our Christmas cards), but rather among the suffering, the vulnerable, the forsaken, the victimized, the dying.

[9] Our church’s social statements are unified by a primary concern for the most vulnerable which include among others:

Unborn children
Children living in poverty
Mothers with few options and little support
People of color or the poor who are far more likely to be sentenced to death
The animal, plants, and entire ecosystems that are being destroyed due to human greed
The poor who are the most likely to be harmed by greedy decisions the powerful and wealthy of the world make regarding economic or environmental policies
Victims of sexual abuse and exploitation
[10] While acknowledging the complexity of our moral deliberation, we can be certain that in placing ourselves in solidarity and relationship with the most vulnerable, and by delving honestly into the places where we are weak and vulnerable, we place ourselves where the cross instructs us we will encounter God.

[11] But our ministry is not just one of solidarity. In the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God reconciles the world to God’s own self, and in doing so reconciles us to one another. Perhaps the most difficult part of the gospel message as a whole is the realization that Jesus came not just for the babies and toddlers who were slaughtered in Bethlehem, but also for the soldiers who followed those orders, and for Herod who would sweep them aside in his fear and lust for power. Jesus did not just come for the child soldiers of the DRC, he also came for those who manipulated or abducted them, conditioned them, raped them, and forced them at the end of a gun or machete to destroy the children around them who would not comply.4 In many places foreign and domestic, the church has been an instrument of reconciliation and restorative justice that would not have been possible save by the grace of God.

[12] Finally, consider these quotations from our social statements as a starting point in identifying who the vulnerable are in your own context, and where your congregation might have an opportunity to be in the ministry of solidarity and reconciliation:

Inspired by Jesus’ own ministry, our love for neighbor embraces especially those who are most vulnerable, including both the pregnant woman and the life in her womb. (Abortion, p. 5)

As a community gathered in faith:

we welcome victims of violent crime and their families, standing with them and for them during their times of grief and anger;
we welcome offenders and their families, supporting them in their recovery;
we welcome partnership with faith communities within the correctional system, joining them in ministries of restoration;
we welcome people who work in criminal justice and their families, recognizing the special burden that accompanies such work. (The Death Penalty, p. 4)
We recognize, however, the many ways we have broken ranks with creation. The land and its inhabitants are often disenfranchised by the rich and powerful. The degradation of the environment occurs where people have little or no voice in decisions — because of racial, gender, or economic discrimination. This degradation aggravates their situation and swells the numbers of those trapped in urban or rural poverty. We pray, therefore, for the humility and wisdom to stand with and for creation, and the fortitude to support advocates whose efforts are made at personal risk. (Caring for Creation, p. 7)

When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we place ourselves in tension with economic assumptions of our society…. God gives in ways that expand our notions of who “us” includes, from people close at hand to those around the globe. In stark contrast to those who seek unchecked accumulation and profit, our attention is drawn to those who are desperate for what will sustain their lives for just this day. (Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, p. 4)

In relation to those who are poor, Martin Luther’s insights into the meaning of the commandments against killing, stealing, and coveting are sobering. We violate “you shall not kill” when we do not help and support others to meet their basic needs. As Luther explained, “If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed [them], you have let [them] starve.” (Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, p. 5)


1. Thomson Reuters Foundation (Jan. 22, 2008).

2. Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Feb. 26, 2010.

3. Daniel Erlander, Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995) 4.

4. Child Alert: Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF (July 2006).

Rachel Wangen-Hoch

Rachel Wangen-Hoch is Associate Pastor of Intergenerational Ministry at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Lacey, Washington.