THE HOLY INNOCENTS — 28 December 2012
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Jeremiah 31:15-17 | Psalm 124 | Revelation 21:1-7 | Matthew 2:13-18
"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." [Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31.15]
Some of us Old Guys remember when it was the custom to use purple as the liturgical color on Holy Innocents' Day, the color of repentance, mourning, and solemn reflection. This was something of a downer just three days after Christmas, when we had finally gotten past four weeks of Advent purple (as we generally used in those days), and now it was back again, a sour moment in the midst of the festivity of Christmastide. Then the Church decided to change to liturgical red for today, the color of martyrs, the color of blood, the color of the Spirit. And at the time many of us said, Oh, Good Idea. The thought apparently was that the infants of Bethlehem were indeed martyrs for Christ, albeit unwittingly.
But in retrospect I’m not so sure it has been such a Good Idea after all. Particularly not after the past two weeks.
First of all, I’m going to bracket and set aside for the moment the question of the historicity of the story of the massacre of the little boys in Bethlehem. There is no evidence for this outside St. Matthew’s Gospel. The Jewish historian Josephus, who had absolutely no love for Herod the Great and who does not hesitate to recount Herod’s many atrocities, doesn’t mention it, and he probably would have if he had known about it, and he probably would have known about it. Obviously this massacre in defense of his own royal power would certainly not have been out of character for Herod – he was a serial murderer, including of some of his own children – but the fact that an atrocity like this would have been in character doesn’t mean that he actually did this one. But the whole matter of the historicity of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke is another question for another time. I keep meaning to write a paper about it and so far haven’t followed through, and anyway it’s beside the point. So. Bracketed and set aside.
My present concern is that it may be wrong-headed of us to describe the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem as “martyrs.” Martyrs are those who witness to the Kingdom of God at the cost of their own lives, as, for instance, St. Stephen two days ago. The massacre at Bethlehem did not witness to the Kingdom of God. The only kingdom it bore witness to was Herod’s. The children were not martyrs, they were victims. And I wonder whether celebrating them as “martyrs” isn’t just putting a pious religious gloss on what was in fact a horrendous atrocity. To call this “martyrdom” is a form of denial. Celebrating today as a Major Feast can be a way we deny the awful reality of the ongoing victimization of people, and especially including children, in countless ways to this very day, and thus deny our need to do something about it. Yes, by all means we must observe Holy Innocents’ Day. And use it by remembering also Sandy Hook Elementary School and Columbine, and Virginia Tech and the University of Iowa (All Saints' Day, 1991). And the Holocaust (the Shoah). And 9/11. And the genocide in Rwanda, and in Sudan, and elsewhere in Central Africa. And Wounded Knee and Sand Creek. And the Crusades. It just goes on and on. And it keeps going on and on. In terms of numbers of victims, the Innocents of Bethlehem would have been a relatively minor incident – Bethlehem wasn’t a very big town at the time.
Ben noted the other night that T. S. Eliot, speaking as St. Thomas Becket, reminds us of the close relationship of birth and death, that the joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus is immediately followed by the observances of the death of his first martyr, of the long life of persecution and exile of one of his chief apostles, and of the “collateral damage” (as we so daintily term it) that followed Jesus’ birth. We both rejoice and mourn. Yes, we do and must celebrate the Incarnation of God the Word, but we do and must also remember the need and the cost of that Incarnation, not only then but now in our own world today. Christmas is not cheap grace.