Holy Innocents by Fra Angelico
Today is probably the darkest day of the Christmas season as the Church remembers the slaughter of all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem on the orders of King Herod. Called "The Holy Innocents," these little ones have been regarded as the youngest martyrs. The story of their killing appears in Matthew's gospel:
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’--Matthew 2: 13-18
The slaughter of children continues today as we saw two weeks ago in Connecticut. It happens outside the townhouses of kids playing in Chicago. It happens in war-torn areas of the Middle East. Every time we see images and hear these reports of young children killed by bullets and bombs, our hearts break at the horror of it all. And, yes, there is wailing and loud lamentation, and parents who can not be consoled.
And yet there was a line that stood out for me as I read the Morning Office today. From Isaiah, it says, "Your builders outdo your destroyers, and those who laid you waste go away from you." This is the yin and yang relationship of darkness to light, and ultimately the light, that which builds up and does not tear down, will come and brighten a darkened world. This is the message for those of us who hold up the ones suffering from loss. We don't know why, as the culture says, "Shit happens." We know that it does, we recognize the pain it causes. We also know that it will not have the final word even when words fail us to say how we know that to be true.
Like Joseph, I had a dream this morning; not about getting me, my partner and the cat off to Egypt, but about the violence and suffering and distrust and misunderstanding that seems so prevalent in the world today. A young African-American child had broken into an apartment and the owner of the apartment, a middle-aged white man, had shot the child. A regular "Stand Your Ground" situation. I was enraged with the white man and was in the apartment to prove that he could have done something other than shoot at the child. After much arguing, I came to realize something about this man: one was that he may NOT have been the one who fired the gun since no gun had been found. The other was that he had made many assumptions about the child and I had made many assumptions about him. And, in the end, I found myself in the dream arguing not about guns, or racism, or poverty. I was arguing that we have lost a sense of interdependence on each other and an understanding that when one part of the body of Christ is suffering and in pain, it is the responsibility of all of us to come together in an effort to bind the wounds and build up that suffering member. We have come to see ourselves as more separated than together. It's from this place of a fractured existence that "the destroyers" outdo "the builders."
Perhaps this is what I need to consider in the deaths of all those innocent children. When young children die, it's a disruption of order. Young children aren't supposed to die ever. When murder cuts their lives short, then it's time for us to consider all the factors at play, and come together to ensure that we protect young lives in the future. Perhaps that is what we are to hear in today's collect:
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Perhaps it's time for us to be more about living and thinking as us and rethink our priorities so that we might establish that rule of justice, love and peace.