Each December 28th for the past four years, a small group of us have held an event to mark the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day when the church remembers the babies killed by Herod in his quest to maintain his own power, and those innocents killed by contemporary Herods in their quest for power and security.
One of the significant parts of the leadup for me was an email exchange with my friend Graeme Dunstan of Peacebus.com, a Buddhist and a long time peace activist. It was largely a theological discussion of the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism, particularly with regard to the Christmas story. This is the kind of deeper connection I was hoping to make post-Facebook. So while my Facebook absence meant more limited event advertising, it also meant deeper connection. So be it.
Graeme made an amazing banner, which we will be able to use for many years to come. I’m deeply grateful for his work and creativity.
Graeme has already done a great reportback on the event here. So rather than concentrating on recounting the event itself, I’ll concentrate on my reflections from it.
One, this event is a deeply significant one, now established as a permanent fixture on our calendar. This was our fourth Holy Innocents event in a row, and has become as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and plum pudding. And rightly so. As one of the processionists shared in the debriefing time afterwards, this is far more authentically Christmas than anything going on in the frenzy of the Bourke St mall.
Two, having been permanently established it is in some ways in danger of becoming rote. While we changed some things from previous years, others I think could have been improved. I’ve tried to keep it a reasonably simple, accessible, DIY event, being post-Christmas Day and in a season people are busy. But perhaps with some creativity we can make more of a public splash.
Part of the tension of this particular event is the balance between it being a form of public action and a discipleship formation event. I see part of my role as being an evangelist (some have said ‘prophet’, I prefer evangelist) to the church, encouraging us to see our calling as bringing the good news of Jesus and his gospel of peace to bear on all societal problems, rather than simply a matter of private morality. And in particular to see our story, the great narrative of Scripture (as played out in the church year), as our primary resource for making that practical. This means deepening our commitment to and practice of our story, rather than throwing out the parts we don’t like (as the left often does), or abstracting and reducing it to the merely personal (as the right so often does). So the two dimensions of this – namely, educational and inspirational for us AND the bearing public witness for them – need to both be present. I think I’ve tended to err on the side of the former, perhaps at the expense of the latter.
We did change the route this year – walking from Victoria Barracks to Defence Plaza was just too long a distance, especially with children, so we instead went Vic Barracks to Fed Square and back to the Shrine. One thing I missed with the change of route was processing through Bourke St Mall. The small interruption to “business as usual”, the irruption of reality into the reverie of bargain-hunting, has been a significant feature of previous years, and I missed it.
Having said that, finishing at the Shrine of Remembrance I think was deeply significant. As I noted at the end, these days 90% of casualties of war are civilians. Where are the Shrines of Remembrance for them? Where are the Shrines for the refugees, for the terrorised and the maimed? For at least a time, we were that Shrine. That was beautiful and significant.
As always, the presence of children at these events is not just a bonus, but essential to its spirit. I’m so grateful for our children and all they teach us, which makes the Holy Innocents remembrance all the more devastating, knowing what other children and parents are going through.
In our closing, many people referenced the small size of our gathering. I recalled the story of Jesus, who gathered just 12 people, and ended up alone. Hence Daniel Berrigan’s dictum, “A good peace movement starts out small and gets smaller.” Because keeping awake in a time of permanent war is hard – the “narrow path” as Jesus describes it. We are in exile – strangers in a strange land – and always there is a small remnant who carry the tradition forward, finding new expressions and ways of being faithful.
I finish with an excerpt of my rant at Victoria Barracks – really the nub of this event for me. A reflection partly birthed in the interfaith discussion between a Buddhist and a Christian. Thanks be to God.
“To our fears, the angels have one thing to say: Do not be afraid. To Zechariah, as he learns that he will soon father a child who will become John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah, the angels say: do not be afraid. To Mary, as she learns that she will carry God in human form: do not be afraid. To the shepherds, as they learn that the Saviour of the world has been born: do not be afraid. To those Herods, ancient and modern, who wage war out of fear, the angels say: do not be afraid. And to those of us who resist, the same message: do not be afraid.
This is the original war on terror – not a violent military bent on destroying their enemies but a nonviolent heavenly army announcing peace on earth and goodwill to all. The bright light in the sky over Palestine shining with the glory of God, not the white phosphorus of today’s wars raining down on the terrified people below.
As we reflect on the absurd mismatch of the Christ child in a manger pitted against the might of an empire, we remember that it does not take great strength of arms to prevail over the culture of death, merely great vulnerability. And that is something that you and I possess.”