If any feast would challenge the American notion that “Christmas is for kids,” it is today’s feast of the Holy Innocents. When I was very young in my religious formation – sometime in early grade school, I remember being piously informed that the first “Christians” who were martyred for the sake of God’s Kingdom were not St. Stephen and the other disciples jailed or put to death after the Resurrection, but rather the Holy Innocents – those boy children under two years old who were slaughtered by Herod in his effort to wipe out the threat that the infant Jesus posed to his rule and authority. The feast offers us a meditation on the fact that goodness threatens the power and control of evil. These children died through the insane cruelty and walking obsession with power that was Herod “the Great;” (one perhaps ought to be chary of applying that appellation to someone we admire, given some of the monsters it has been awarded to in history). They did not die to save Jesus’ life (the angel took care of that). They died simply because they were in the way of Herod’s will to power – his need to be a god. So had the Egyptian Pharaoh behaved in Moses’ time when the weeping was heard in Ramah for the slaughtered infants of Israel.
Since it was structural evil – the empire of death that Herod managed – that was the cause of the Holy Innocent’s death, Church leaders have taken this occasion in the last several decades to remind the world of the social systems that permit the slaughter of innocents today through the violence of abortion. We would do well, of course to include as well the other innocents who die – or lived tortured lives – as victims of violence and will to power be they the millions of children who die of starvation when food becomes a weapon of war, or those innocents who die of AIDS because their mothers were raped and infected with a disease they had no power to prevent or avoid. Or what of innocents in our neighborhoods who are battered physically, sexually, verbally by friends, family, or trusted adults. The number of small children who die by this kind of violence here in Nebraska each year is staggering. So the wailing heard in Ramah for the Innocents is also heard in our own time – in our own homes, neighborhoods, schools, streets, nation and throughout the dark corners of our world. Children – the most vulnerable – become the pawns of cruelty and sin.
And so it has been through the centuries that those who craved the darkness bring darkness into the lives of others. The first reading for this feast from John’s first letter reminds us that Christ is light. At this prevailingly dark time of year in the Northern Hemisphere it is easy for us to hope for light that disperses the cold and darkness of the physical world. On this fourth day of Christmas in the western culture it is the time that the darkness of post holiday depression sets in as we look cynically at the top ten news stories of the year and are reminded poignantly of the darkness of war, disease, various forms of human greed and violence, and our failure to seem one step closer to the “better world” we keep expecting science or money or political power to bring about.
But the light of Christ is the light of God’s truth; the truth that God is a God of love and profoundly loves the vulnerable, the little ones. God will drive out the darkness but darkness won’t give up without a fight – and the winner is gentleness, compassion and refusal to hate – even in the face of hatefulness. The innocents call us to the innocence of non-violence – the willingness to love even the power driven Herods in our world.
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