Matthew 2:13-18: And How Are the Children?

Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai [of Kenya and Tanzania]. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: “Kasserian Ingera,” one would always say to another. It means, “And how are the children?”

It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. “All the children are well” means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.[1]

So writes the Rev. Patrick O’Neil, a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Brooklyn, New York. He goes on to wonder how our own community might be transformed if we adopted this custom. What if we started each worship service with the words: “Grace and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And how are the children?” What if our town councils, our school boards, and even the meetings of such civic committees and organizations as our water and sewer authorities, our Rotary, Kiwanis, and Junior League clubs, and even our gardening clubs, knitting circles, and hunt clubs started with the question “And how are the children?” What if our Pre-K teachers, our public school teachers, and even our yoga, Zumba, and spin class teachers began each class with the question “And how are the children?” What if even the board and staff meetings of businesses from the largest multinational corporations down to the smallest mom and pop diners began with the question “And how are the children?” How would it reorient and reshape our church, our community, our state, our nation, and our world to answer the question “And how are the children?” as our first priority?

It is no accident that the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday after Christmas day confronts us with the realities of political power and the plight of the most vulnerable in our world. In the Orthodox church, today is celebrated as the Feast Day of the Innocents, the day on which the church remembers the slaughter of the children by Herod. In an op-ed piece in Friday’s New Your Times, Wheaton College professor Esau McCaulley wrote:

Why is it important that the church calendar tells this story at the beginning of the Christmas season? . . . The church calendar calls Christians and others to remember that we live in a world in which political leaders are willing to sacrifice the lives of the innocent on the altar of power. We are forced to recall that this is a world with families on the run, where the weeping of mothers is often not enough to win mercy for their children. More than anything, the story of the innocents calls upon us to consider the moral cost of the perpetual battle for power in which the poor tend to have the highest casualty rate.

But how can such a bloody and sad tale do anything other than add to our despair? The Christmas story must be told in the context of suffering and death because that’s the only way the story makes any sense. Where else can one speak about Christmas other than in a world in which racism, sexism, classism, materialism and the devaluation of human life are commonplace? People are hurting, and the epicenter of that hurt . . . remains the focus of God’s concern. . . . Things that God cares about most do not take place in the centers of power. The truly vital events are happening in refugee camps, detention centers, slums and prisons. The Christmas story is set not in a palace surrounded by dignitaries but among the poor and humble whose lives are always subject to forfeit. . . . The very telling of the Christmas story is an act of resistance. . . . Christianity [does] not merely serve the disinherited — it [is] for the disinherited.

Christians believe that none of this suffering was in vain. The cries of the oppressed do not go forever unanswered. We believe that the children slaughtered by Herod were ushered into the presence of God and will be with him for eternity. The Christian tradition also affirms that Jesus’ suffering served a purpose, that when the state ordered his death, God was at work. Through the slaughter of the truly innocent one, God was emptying death of its power, vanquishing evil and opening the path toward forgiveness and reconciliation.[2]

It is important that we ask “And how are the children?” no matter where or who those children are, because Jesus held children in intimate concern:

People were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

Our worship is most devout, our adoration is most heartfelt, and our commitment to follow Christ is most firm when we too hold the well-being of the sick, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, the poor, and the children in intimate concern. In the Presbyterian church, each time we baptize a child we answer these questions:

Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ,
promise to guide and nurture [these children],
by word and deed, with love and prayer,
encouraging them to know and follow Christ
and to be faithful members of his church?

It can be hard to see the relevance of these questions in a congregation that has not baptized a child in many years. But these questions do not pertain only to the children who walk through this door. When these questions address us as members of the church of Jesus Christ, it means any church—the church universal—not just Butner Presbyterian Church. And not only any church enclosed by walls, but the church enfolded into God’s universal love and concern. These questions pertain to all the children we encounter, both directly and indirectly, on every step of our daily walk. They pertain to the child we encounter in the grocery store, the child we rock on our lap, the child we feed at Urban Ministries, the child we pass by on the sidewalk, the child we see on the news, and the child we hear in the park. They pertain to the children encountered by the police officer who cruises past us all lights and sirens on the street, the children treated by the doctor who treats us, and the children being raised by the food pantry client.

In a poem that circulated widely this Christmas, pastor, scholar, theologian, and civil rights activist Howard Thurman wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.[3]

The child Jesus was born into this world not just to draw men and women, shepherds and angels, peasants and kings to worship by his cradle, but to redeem all of creation through his cross. And our work is not only to join the choirs of all who sing his praise since that first Christmas morning, but also to join in the work of bearing witness to that redemption. Our call is to take up his cross and carry on the hard work of lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, sheltering the outcast, and protecting the vulnerable—children being among the most vulnerable in our nation today.

So after we have knelt by his manger, let us take up our cross and carry on the hard work of blessing the children among us. It is our truest worship of the Christ child. Amen.

[1] https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/and-how-are-the-children

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/27/opinion/christmas-feast-of-innocents.html

[3] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/now-the-work-of-christmas-begins/