Sermon by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes, Vicar of the Close
Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:18)
Epistle: Hebrews 2:10-end
Gospel: Matthew 2: 13-end
These days after Christmas are full of variety and dramatic interest in the Church’s calendar. First there is St Stephen, whose celebration tends to be swallowed up by the excitement or torpor of Boxing Day. Then we nod in the direction of St John the Evangelist ; and yesterday we remembered the Holy Innocents, those infants in Bethlehem whom Herod the Great so cruelly had slaughtered, though he missed his actual target. Well, perhaps we do not keep these three feasts as assiduously as we might, since they have the misfortune to congregate in the sluggish days after all the excitement of Christmas itself. Today, however, our Gospel does remind us of Herod’s dreadful violence towards defenceless children, with its resonance of such acts perpetrated by tyrants, and the vicious and malevolent, down the ages, including our own. Indeed, of these three festivals, only one celebrates a long life with clear fulfilment – that of St John, whose gospel suggests a reflective and contemplative approach to the events he describes. St Stephen’s life was cut short by his early martyrdom; but that event had a crucial impact on the spread and growth of Christianity for he seems, in his death, to have been one of the critical influences behind St Paul’s conversion.
So what sense do St Matthew, in our Gospel, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, make of all this suffering, indeed of all this death? For Matthew, the necessity of suffering was pre-figured in the scriptures, and this chapter is full of Old Testament prophetic foreboding. He reminds us of what happened to the Israelites in Egypt, how Pharaoh gave orders to kill all their male infants by drowning them in the Nile; and how Moses had to flee from Egypt, and then, at God’s command, return to lead his people out. And that gives us our clue: what Matthew hints at here is Jesus’ own later suffering and death, which leads in turn to the victory of our salvation.
The Hebrews Epistle builds on this and makes explicit what Matthew implies. Jesus is the ‘pioneer of … salvation made perfect through suffering.’ The words the author uses here are the same as in his famous phrase near the end of the epistle: ‘The author and perfecter of our faith’ (12:2). Jesus is the founder or originator of our faith and our salvation; he is the trailblazer to God for us to follow. He is also the perfecter of that faith and salvation. In other words, he brings them to fruition and to fulfilment; and it is ‘through suffering’ that we are told he does this. It was precisely this suffering that enabled Jesus to complete the task he was sent to do.
Why this happens takes us to the centre of what God was doing in becoming human. We have just been celebrating his birth as that most vulnerable of beings, a new-born baby. He had from the start all human potential, including infirmity and suffering. In this he was quite different from, say, Herakles, who as a tiny infant sat up in his pram and strangled a passing snake or two. The Greek gods, when they came down to earth, were still fully possessed of their divine powers, and used them – in some cases to cause mayhem. If you want to know about gods behaving badly, read the Iliad. They were on a different plane – detached. By contrast Christ was able, through his sufferings, to identify with humans, not just to observe them with interest. There is nothing like having been through an experience (good or bad) oneself to enable one to understand properly a similar experience in others, and thus to sympathise with them in full measure. That is what God does for us: through Jesus’ sufferings we are assured that he is alongside us, especially in our sorrows and pain.
You may recall the remarkable Rabbi, Hugo Gryn, who before his death in 1996 was in charge of the West London Synagogue. As a boy of fourteen, during the war, he found himself in Auschwitz, surrounded by every horror that perverted minds could invent. His brother and grandparents had been killed on arrival at the camp. His father subsequently died a few days after liberation. I remember his recounting how, on one occasion, the Red Cross had organised postcards for the inmates to send to anyone they wanted, pencils to write them with, and trestle tables to write them on. A feeling of elation spread through the camp; now, for the first time, there was the possibility of contact with the outside world. Excitedly the boy approached the table and took a pencil. But his elation began to turn to despair as he realised there was no one to write to: all his friends and relations were either in similar camps or dead. And he saw the same realisation dawning on everyone else: they were going away from the tables , their hopes dashed.
A few days later it was the Feast of the Passover, the triumphant event of the Jewish calendar. It was not, of course, allowed to be celebrated; but the young boy managed to slip away from his work party, and went off alone. There he sat and in his mind went, as far as he could remember, through the words of the Passover ceremony and prayers. And when he could remember no more, he sat and wept and wept. But gradually, in his desolation at all that he had lost, as the hours went by he became aware somehow that he was not alone. He did not simply feel, he knew that God was there beside him, understanding his suffering; sympathetic and compassionate. And in that moment the boy’s world was changed for ever. God was no longer remote and inaccessible, but right alongside him.
How much more can we be sure that God, having taken our form, will say to us, ‘I know what it’s like to be human; I have experienced the heights of joy and have plumbed the depths of despair. I know how you are feeling, and I am beside you, always.’
‘His name shall be called Emmanuel.. God with us’ (Mt. 1:23)