HOLY INNOCENTS — 28 December 2011
Trinity – 5:30 pm
Perhaps you recall T. S. Eliot’s verse play, Murder in the Cathedral, in which in the Interlude, a Christmas sermon by Archbishop Thomas Becket a few days before his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral, Becket calls attention to the fact that on the day after Christmas, the celebration of our Lord’s birth, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. As indeed we did this past Monday. But the point that Becket is making, in Eliot’s words, about the dark side of Christmas, is equally, maybe even more, applicable to Holy Innocents’ Day, which we observe (it’s not clear that “celebrate” is exactly the right word) today. This is indeed the Incarnation at what is arguably its very darkest. And since at Christmastide we are all light and joy, we tend to overlook the Holy Innocents, or at least to sentimentalize them. And that may be to miss an important dimension of Christmas.
It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the massacre of the boy-babies of Bethlehem. The only account we have of it is in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which we just heard. There is no mention of it in secular history, even in the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. We may assume that if Josephus had known about it, he would have said something about it, because Josephus had no use at all for Herod the Great and didn’t hesitate to record Herod’s many murders and atrocities. The Bethlehem slaughter would certainly not have been out of character for Herod. On the other hand, Bethlehem in the first century was apparently not a very large town, and the number of victims probably wasn’t large. Compared to the numbers of deaths in other massacres of women and children in the ancient world, and in the medieval world (including by Christian Crusaders), and in the modern world, and even in our own country (including of Native Americans), the Bethlehem “incident” was comparatively minor. (Not that that makes it any better!)
But what this observance forces us to realize is exactly into what kind of world God became incarnate, and what the cost of that incarnation would be. Our liturgical color today is red – the color of blood (appropriate enough!) and thus the color of martyrdom. But although the deaths of the innocents of Bethlehem were a martyrdom, a witness, of sorts, they would certainly not have been recognized as such at the time – only a bitter witness to the cruelty of those in power. And some of us remember when our custom on this day was to wear violet, the liturgical color of repentance, recognizing the sinfulness and moral corruption of a world in which such a bloodbath could take place. And still could. And still does.