Go, smiling souls, your new-built cages break,
In heaven you’ll learn to sing, ere here to speak,
Nor let the milky fonts that bathe your thirst
Be your delay;
The place that calls you hence is, at the worst,
Milk all the way.
(Crashaw, “To the Infant Martyrs”)
The three days after Christmas carry us abruptly from kneeling in reverence before the Infant’s manger to the harsh realities of the world he came to redeem. December 26th, we commemorate St. Stephen, the first martyr to die for professing faith in Christ. The 27th brings us St. John, the beloved disciple, the one who reclined on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, but then fled in the hour of his arrest. And today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates an event most of us choose to forget.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that, when Herod learned of Jesus’ birth, he desired to kill the newborn child in order to eliminate a potential rival for the throne. When he realized that the Wise Men were not going to return to tell him where the child was, he lashed out in fury and ordered his soldiers to kill every child under two years of age in the town of Bethlehem and its surrounds. It is a brutal reminder that our salvation was bought at a cost, one paid not only in the Crucifixion of Christ, but also by ordinary people who saw their children perish.
This is real-world stuff. It happens from time to time even today, as killing fields yield the bodies of the dead in places as disparate as Iraq and Rwanda, China and Latin America and the former Soviet Union. There will always be people whose lust for power blinds them to the means they use to maintain it. We, the disciples of Christ, are called to live differently, to remember that the ends do not justify the means, even when our purposes are holy. Christ lived among the people who are often counted as expendable to teach us that no person is expendable, no matter how small and insignificant.
I have long wondered whether Jesus knew of those lost lives as he was growing up and at what point his parents told him. Was his remarkable tenderness toward children the result of his pain over those lost lives? When he stood at the little girl’s bed and raised her from the dead, was his prayer a simple request, or did he, out of his sorrow and rage, conjure the names of those who had been lost, for Sarah and Jacob and Ruth, for Esther and Moshe and Joshua and the one who had no name, let this one live?
And we, how do we live with the knowledge of our privilege? Do we show Christ’s tenderness to those who have not been offered what we enjoy? Are we able, when we struggle with the demands of our faith, to remember those who have had so much more taken than we have been asked to give? Are we able, in adversity, still to live from a place of gratitude?
The Holy Innocents is a Feast, not a fast, because we believe the souls of children are with God. It is the parents, the family members and friends, who know the pain of these losses. Recently, my friend Jennifer, who has lost a son, was speaking to his spirit in the dark watches of the night, remembering the last hours of his life. She asked him, “Jacob, do you remember dying?” And in the darkness she heard him reply, “I only remember being loved.”
May we so live our days that our deeds may be remembered on that far shore, where there is no sorrow nor sighing, but only life eternal. Amen.
You’re right… what a horrible story. How interesting that you wonder whether this sordid affair affected Christ and how he responded to children.