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Weeping for her children

December 28, 2012

Holy-Innocents-2VERY few churches–and very few Christians–pay much attention to Holy Innocents’ Day. It is one of the most painful reminders in the church’s calendar. But observance of the day is central to a proper observance of Christmas, especially in this year which bore witness to the most senseless waste of life: 27 people–20 of them children–shot dead in Newtown, Conn. To many, it seemed incongruous to read stories of death and bloodshed during the busy commercial holiday season. How easy to forget that sorrow and death are a part of Christmas itself.

Herod, hearing of the birth of a potential danger to his rule and misled by the wise men, ordered the slaying of all infants, aged two or less, in his kingdom. On the fourth day of Christmas, we find no colly birds, only the ill use of power and a massive body count.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.1

This is the sort of world into which and for which Christ was born. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord, but it is easy to forget in what dire need of salvation we are. To ignore the Holy Innocents is to take the teeth out of the Nativity, to shrink it to a size perfect for a syrupy holiday card, and nothing else.

Most Christians of good will would probably just as soon not have the foul story of the Holy Innocents spoiling the hoped-for serenity of Christmas. Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Well-meaning preachers, undertaking the laudable work of speaking comfortable words to their flocks, are wont to paint the world in a happy light. “Look at all of the well-meaning people doing all of the well-meaning things; isn’t the world fundamentally good and wonderful? Good for us.” Letting the good crowd out the bad is easier and more palatable than giving much thought to the violence of the world, but this is a theology that leaves us in the lurch when calamity strikes.

These same well-meaning preachers–and their flocks–will wonder where God was in Newtown, Conn. To them, we would give the same reply as we did when people wondered where God was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Newtown massacre2 was a human crime, born of the actual world that mankind has created for itself. It is a very far cry from the city on the hill hoped of old. It is we who have enabled Newtown, we who have enabled every Newtown. We who collectively favor our own rights above the right thing to do, who cling to our stubborn insistence that an arms race with our neighbors is a proper ordering of our public life. In such times, is it any wonder that, from time to time, we witness the deaths of our own holy innocents?

Holy Innocents’ Day reminds us that we are not the first generation to inhabit a world in which children are the targets of wanton cruelty, nor are we the first generation in which good men and women feel impotent against the seemingly pervasive forces of evil and death. Taken within the observance of Christmas, however, it reminds us also that, while we struggle on mightily in this world, we have a Saviour who has gone before us into the next, who has hung on the cross for our sake, and we do not have to go it alone.

Many in the church would suggest that if enough good Christians undertake enough kind words and enough right deeds, we will make for ourselves heaven upon earth. But this is the same fallacy that befell the apostles who expected Christ to sweep away the Romans, and Pilate, and the rest of the temporal order. We are not heirs of an earthly kingdom, nor can we create one for ourselves. Paul reminds us that “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”3

It is not enough to be well meaning, and it is not enough to undertake kind words and good works, lest any man should boast. As Christians, we must first “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed.” We must acknowledge our need of salvation, which we cannot obtain for ourselves. Of this fact there could be no more potent reminders than the massacre of the Holy Innocents in the first century, and of twenty-seven shot dead at Newtown in our own. We ought to acknowledge, and we ought to remember.

Such remembrance is part of our particular task as Christians. In a nation that quickly forgets the lessons of the past, the celebrant intones weekly of “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make” in the Communion prayer, Communion which we take in remembrance. We are bid to remember, and our continual need of doing so is why we go to church on Sunday, why we read the same prayers and readings year in and year out, why those who say “I don’t need to come to church to express my faith” are really missing the boat.

If our faith does not bear us up in moments such as these, then we have forgotten the old lessons and the old sureties they provide. Ours is a mighty faith, and the observance of this day is a necessary reminder to us all. We believe in a Father almighty, who hath made all things, and in Christ Jesus, his only son, who was born to save. Christmas without the Holy Innocents–that is, the birth of a Saviour without an acknowledgement of the world’s need of one–is an empty celebration indeed.

O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths: Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1. Matthew 2:16-18
2. Grammar school students learning the elementary lessons of American history will read of the Boston Massacre, in which five civilian colonists were killed by British soldiers. If five qualifies as a massacre, surely we may characterize the killing of twenty-seven in Newtown as the same.
3. Ephesians 2:8-9

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