by Brian Walsh
Some years ago I was in Guatemala with a group of students that I was teaching in the Creation Care Studies Program in Belize. Our guide to the great Mayan site at Tikal was a woman named Yolanda. And over dinner at her home with this group of CCSP students she shared with us something of the sad and violent history of Guatemala. One of those stories continues to haunt me.
During the struggle against the dictatorship of Rios Montt in the 1980’s the army would roll into a village and gather up all the young men for their “voluntary” service. As time went on the villagers would see the army coming and the young men would run into the forest. Frustrated with this constant subversion of their military agenda the army moved to more drastic measures.
One day the army came to the village, the young men all ran and once again there was no one for the soldiers to take. So the soldiers gathered up the young boys. Children too young for military service, but who would likely follow their older brothers’ example and either run from the army or join the resistance movement. The boys were then taken into the very forest where the older boys would run. But these children would never run again. The soldiers killed all the boys in that forest.
The grief of the community was, of course, overwhelming. Weeping and wailing took hold of the mothers and fathers, the grandparents, the whole community.
Sadly, there is nothing all that unique about this story. Soldiers have been taking the children and killing them for millennia. Idolatry always requires sacrifice and idols always have an insatiable appetite for children. And in Central America the bones of the children are still being found in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. That’s simply the way things go with military regimes.
Such violence is no stranger to the story of Jesus. Epiphany is a day of revelation. Epiphany is a day when the church celebrates the revelation of the Kingdom of God amongst the Gentiles. But such revelation, such good news, never comes without opposition. It never comes without violence.
And so Epiphany is always closely connected to the slaughter of the innocents. The Magi pay homage to the newborn king and King Herod responds with the murder of every male child under the age of two.
But Yolanda had more to tell about the slaughter of the innocents of Guatemala. She says that there was an old tree where the boys were murdered. A tree that bore witness to the crimes committed in its shade. And they say that this tree died a year after the massacre. The villagers all said that the tree died of grief.
The tree died of grief.
We know that all creation groans in travail longing for redemption, but perhaps we don’t grasp deeply enough the grief of creation. Creation doesn’t just groan in the labour pains of new birth, creation also groans, weeps and mourns for the slaughtered innocents. The trees bear witness to this violence, they are assaulted by the blood that is shed all around them, and they grieve.
In Ezekiel’s prophecy, it is not the forest that is the place of child slaughter, but the mountains. It was to the mountains that the children ran when the Babylonians came to destroy Israel. It was to the mountains that they fled, rather than being taken captive by these occupying forces. And it would appear that few of them ever returned from those mountains.
So this is the word of hope that comes to those mountains:
“Thus says the Lord God: Because they say to you, ‘You devour people, and you bereave your nation of children,’ therefore you shall no longer devour people and no longer bereave your nation of children, says the Lord God; and no longer will I let you hear the insults of the nations, no longer shall you bear the disgrace of the peoples; and no longer shall you cause your nation to stumble, says the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 36.13-15)
No longer will you be a site of slaughter, no longer will you be a place of bereavement. And no longer will these mountains hear the insults of the nations, nor will they bear witness to such violence again.
Isaiah puts it this way:
They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord –
and their descendants as well…
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain. (Isaiah 65.23,25)
No more children for calamity.
No more labouring in vain.
No more hurting or destroying on God’s good creation.
No more child sacrifice.
No more trees dieing of grief.
That’s the hope, and I’m hanging on to it by the tatters of my faith.