Feast of the Holy Innocents
Feast of the Holy Innocents
Scripture Readings: 1 Jn 1:5-2:2; Mt 2:13-18
Let the children come to me for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Even Jesus politicizes children, for the Kingdom of God is extreme politics and ultimate social design.
Jesus knew how children were the pawns of politics under Pharaoh, and he would have known how Herod to protect his power-base had slaughtered the children of Bethlehem.
The killing of children, the elimination of the future to protect a tenuous and personal present; child soldiers and suicide bombers, child prostitutes, children denied a sex and gender identity, children prevented and aborted: children are always victims of someone else’s agenda, someone else’s politics and social design.
But Jesus makes them the stars: to such belongs the politics of God, his social design where the first are last and the least are first, and where to be powerful is to serve. He stood a little child in the middle.
Someone sent me a gift this Christmas. It is a dome, 3 ½” in diameter at the base, of solid crystal clear as air.
God is light and in him is not darkness. Lead crystal has nothing of its own either of color or light. It rather receives light and reflects it back in jeweled points of color. Maybe to walk in light means to be as empty and receptive as a crystal dome, without sin, innocent, which means free of malice and contrivance.
A child is a piece of crystal. In respect to evil, says Saint Paul, be like infants . . . blameless, innocent children of God . . . shining lights in the world (1 Cor 14:20; Phil 2:15).
But to be a light in the world—in a crooked and perverse generation—is inevitably to be political, the politics of the Kingdom of God in the politics of the age where always children are the victims, and hence the grace of martyrdom. Rachel weeps for her children because they are no more (Jer 31:15). The verse is embedded in a long poem of divine reversal. Immediately the Lord responds, Cease your weeping . . . . There is hope for your future, your children shall return . . . the children in whom I delight (Jer 31:16-20).
Let the children come to me, for to such is the Kingdom of God.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
[Scripture Readings: 1 Jn 1:5-2:2; Mt 2:13-18]
“To resist evil is to resist the world; to resist the world is to pursue political solutions when the politicians have given up on them. To not give in to the spirit of gloom and pessimism in a world full of mourning, the sole force to rely on, a force that is inexhaustible – is that of infancy. Only the spirit of the infant, of the new beginning, can renew our world.” We would do well to reflect on this quotation on the Feast of the Holy Innocents; a day when we are tempted to be saddened by remembrance of the suffering and death of very small children at the hands of the powerful of this world. But, in what I just quoted, the world and its great ones are said to be “reliant upon” the “spirit of the infant” as a force that is “inexhaustible” the “sole force” of effective political resistance; the only force that can secure for our world a “new beginning”. Imagine, the infant described as a mighty power in our midst, without which – the whole world would be swallowed up in “gloom and pessimism”. Now, you might conclude these words are nonsense, in light of the fact that the man whom I am quoting was murdered shortly after he wrote them, at the hands of men who considered him a nobody; men who were somebody and who had armies and weapons to demonstrate that fact. Bro. Christophe of Tibhirine, the source of this quote is not remembered as an especially effective agent of political resistance, or a mighty force of renewal, or as the progenitor of a new beginning in history. He was just a monk, a Trappist monk like one of us, a monk who died a death so wretched and obscure that 16 years later his assassins have not been brought to justice, mainly because we don't actually know who killed him, and yet his words haunt us because his proclamation of the power of the infant to change the world ought to be nonsense and yet, as recent events in our world suggest, Christophe might actually have been telling us the truth.
What is he telling us? He seems to be saying: A child is not small or weak; she has real authority, and she is powerful. In spite of appearances, a child, considered in her essential mystery, is not at all diminutive or small. She is a miracle, an inexpressible surprise whose mystery cannot be fathomed. But we know this. If we are honest, we all know from experience that a child enters the world with considerable authority and power. Any crib scene under a Christmas tree will make vividly clear that a newborn child exercises real authority—just look how every figure in his presence inclines toward and seems pre-occupied with him, a scene replayed in countless family rooms when ever a newborn baby is brought into the room. To not get out of one's seat, come forward and pay your respects; to sit and pay no heed to a new born infant brought into the room, would be recognized by everyone present as an affront and an insult to the newborn. Does a child have power? I have never had a child and I never will, but my brothers and sisters have, and I have witnessed close up that the arrival of a child is an event that disrupts, turns upside down, and transforms the life of a married couple. A child is not weak—she is strong and with an iron grip, she will seize hold of the beautiful future you imagined you had all planned out for yourself, take it away from you and never give it back. How many women today choose to have an abortion out of sheer terror of the possibility of an encounter with a child? If an infant looks small and weak to us, that may be because there simply is no explanation for the surprise and mystery of a child except the resplendent glory of the Creator God. But meeting a child, so recently come from God, it is as if we saw the light and majesty of the Creator God appearing directly behind her shining like an aura around her making her inexpressibly tiny. In short, a child is a revelation of God, the sudden breaking into our world of a vision—a vision of the majesty of God our Creator. In fact, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is actually the celebration of a great reversal and I think we fail to grasp the deep meaning of the Feast if we ignore this great reversal and only mourn the fate of the Holy Innocents at Herod's hand.
A journalist and advocate of women's “reproductive rights” is quoted on a recent Time magazine cover: “We were victorious in Roe vs. Wade . . . and have been losing ever since.” Yeah, have you noticed? The expectation was that after its legalization, abortion would no longer be thought of as a moral issue at all, but seen as a routine medical procedure. Fifty years later, our country remains convulsed; ripped right down the middle in a fierce battle over whether or not abortion is morally acceptable. Are we witnessing here a reversal; a demonstration of the power of the infant proclaimed by Bro. Christophe? Is the authority of the infant being confirmed in our time; a teaching authority, something like the magisterium, the spirit of the infant, who with the voice of an unerring and wise teacher is saying to us: “An objective moral norm is not portable. You cannot adjust moral norms to fit your preferred lifestyle. Moral truth does not accommodate itself to judges and courts whose empty pronouncements agitate souls, turning this way and that like gusting winds.” Brothers and sisters, the infant child who Bro. Christophe spoke of is alive and she is with us today; a mighty force renewing our world. On this Feast of the Holy Innocents, let us stand in awe and celebrate their living presence with us today as beneficiaries and living signs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ by which death and sin have been conquered and everything—everything!—is being made new.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
[Scripture Readings: 1Jn. 1: 5-2: 2; Mt. 2: 13-28 ]
Among the images that the liturgy presents during this season to point us toward the mystery of the Incarnation light figures prominently. Combining the prolog of the Gospel of John with the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, this light is not a strong, blazing light, but the small, gentle light of an infant lying in a manger. Nevertheless this small, gentle light was a threat to the forces of darkness that surrounded it. The fear of a deranged tyrant caused the slaughter of innocent children in an effort to extinguish the light of Christ who came to bring life and salvation to the world.
It is a tragic fact that the culture of death is not unique to our time. There have been many cultures of death throughout the centuries. Ever since the light of Christ first dawned on earth to dispel the darkness the forces of darkness have sought to extinguish it. And they continue today attacking the unborn, children, adults who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the aged and others who are victims of fear, anger and human arrogance.
As members of the body of Christ you and I have a role to play in keeping the light of Christ shining in today’s world. We may regret and criticize the culture of death, but do we offer a credible alternative to a life based on comfort, pleasure and the accumulation of material wealth? We cannot control how others will react to our witness to Christ. They may dismiss it as foolish and irrelevant, or oppose it as a threat to a lifestyle of being able to do whatever they want. Nevertheless as followers of Christ we are called to manifest life according to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ in our behavior and in our speech. Our individual contributions to the culture of life may seem small and inconsequential in comparison with the forces of darkness that confront us; but the forces of darkness have not been able to overcome the light of Christ for two thousand years. They will not be able to overcome it now. Our strength is not in ourselves; it is in the small, gentle light of life that came into the world two thousand years ago at Bethlehem.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
[Scripture Readings: 1 Jn 1:5-2:2; Mt 2:13-18 ]
On the Third Sunday of Advent we heard Jesus tell John the Baptist and his followers, “Blessed are those who take no offense at me.” Today’s gospel shows a stark contrast between the blessed who are not offended at Jesus’ coming and those who are offended. Faith is the opposite of offense.
We’re told1 there are two ways a person can be offended by Jesus Christ. Joseph and Herod represent each of them. Joseph has the possibility of being offended by the lowliness of Christ. His betrothed is pregnant and he dreams that he is told that “it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21). First he is supposed to believe that this girl, about fourteen years old from the not-too-well-thought-of town of Nazareth (John 1:46), is going to give birth to the savior. Then he is told he must save the savior.
Herod also has the possibility of being offended, but in his case offended by the loftiness of Christ. He was told that “the king of the Jews” had been born in his jurisdiction. He was “greatly troubled” and when the Ruler is troubled so is everyone in Jerusalem.
Joseph and Herod were each presented with the possibility of offense at the presence of Jesus Christ. Each stood at the crossroad. Each was forced into a decisive crisis: to move toward God or away from Him. A decision had to be made. How each man has lived his life up to now will heavily influence his decision. Joseph shows faith through obedience; Herod shows offense through mass-murder.
Both men faced the possibility of offense because for each the presence of this baby shook up the established order. Each of us is offended when things don’t go the way we think they should. But we are not talking here about an everyday experience of rudeness or injustice. This goes much deeper into what we are as humans. This baby grew up to say “Blessed—HAPPY—are those who are not offended at me.” The joy we are called to during this Christmas season is contingent on not being offended by Jesus Christ. More precisely it is contingent on not remaining offended. If it were possible for anyone not to be offended by Jesus Christ, we Cistercians would not have a novitiate. Joining the Cistercians would be like joining a civic group: show up; pay dues, attend meetings and participate in activities. But because Jesus Christ offends—and He knows He offends—the novitiate, like the early years of the vocation of marriage, is designed to help us answer the question: “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:35-39).
When something offends it gets our whole-hearted attention. When the heart is that involved it tells us what depth we are living from. How we have lived up to the moment of offense will heavily influence our reaction to it. If we are living from the shallower depths of self-satisfaction we will be offended by mundane things such as chance events, rudeness, or injustice. If we are living from the deeper one of love of God and neighbor then chance events will not pull us off sides because we—like Joseph—are grounded in a story… and a community that lives out the story.
Unless we are offended by Jesus we will not notice how this child from Bethlehem is so radically different from everyone else; we will not notice how radically “other” the kingdom of God is from our ordinary world. We will not know how radically transformed our lives must be if we are to follow Him. In short, we will not live from the deepest part of our hearts.
And so it is for us in our Cistercian spiritual journey. We undergo God. The generosity and total devotion of Jesus Christ—when asked of us—will offend us and we will do what humans do when offended: we will intensify our desire for things to be as we thought they would be. Our desires—our ideas about what will fulfill us—will need to be re-educated. That is the purpose of prayer: to re-educate our desires so that we desire according to the Father, rather than the world. That is what Jesus does. SO … the way out of offense is the imitation of Christ. This is what our Cistercian contemplative life is about.
And if we let our life of prayer thus re-educate our desires, we will—like Jesus—open ourselves to the greatest use we can possibly make of our lives. The greatest use of life is what offends the most and requires the most faith: it is to spend our life on something that will outlast it.
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity
Feast of the Holy Innocents
[Scripture Readings: 1 Jn 1:5-2:2; Mt 2:13-18]
Jesuit, Fr. James Schall, was riding the #35 bus in Washington D.C. recently when he noticed a placard behind the driver’s seat. It had two brief paragraphs, one titled “Myth” the other titled “Fact.” The Myth, it read, was that “abortion is legal only during the first 3 months of pregnancy;” the Fact, it asserted, is that it “is legal during all 9 months for virtually any reason.” He was struck by the rather triumphant use of the word “Legal.” If it is legal, one would think, then it must be right. After all, the law sanctions what is “right” and makes it “right” by deciding what it will enforce… doesn’t it?
King Herod’s slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two was also legal.
In 2006, in Hialeah, FL, an 18 year old girl went to an abortion clinic to have her 23 week old fetus aborted. She was given drugs for dilating and seated in a recliner. The doctor was late in arriving. While waiting for the doctor she gave birth to a baby girl. The little girl was breathing and moving her arms in search of someone to cling to. A 43 year old woman, part-owner of the clinic, came into the room, knocked the baby off the chair and onto the floor, and scooped her and the afterbirth into a red plastic bio-hazards bag and threw it in the garbage.
At the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha quadruplets were born at 23 weeks. They were given appropriate medical care and all four are alive and healthy today.
The County Medical Examiner in Florida issued a certificate of live-birth. The death certificate listed cause of death as “extreme prematurity.” Not from bleeding to death from an unclamped umbilical cord. Not trauma from hitting the floor, not suffocation in the plastic bag. Extreme prematurity. Was it the baby’s fault?
The teenager filed a wrongful-death lawsuit and wanted the owner charged with homicide. Had the doctor arrived five minutes earlier there would be no question of wrongful-death or homicide. It would have been just another routine medical procedure. It would be legal. The ambiguity between “legal” and “right” was resolved when the teen experienced the horror of the mothers of Bethlehem compounded by the awful realization that it had been a product of her choice.
What changed the teenagers’ attitude toward the child? It was that she saw the babies face. Conscience was aroused from within. Conscience is an awareness created by God that we were made to attain our own end. The authority with which the Church teaches us about life is not merely external, but designed by God to focus our attention on what is within. Conscience is an inner voice. It is formed by what we pay attention to. It is too often replaced by the merely external voice of what is socially acceptable, politically correct, or “legal.” This is how what is “legal” is confused for what is “right.” This is one of the ways we keep ourselves from seeing the evil that we do.
We experience conscience when we reflect on things that matter. From our earliest years we learn what matters from others, from “authority figures.” For many people today the authorities for deciding what is right may be judges, legislators, scientists, and the media.
The truth of what matters, of what matters most, is implanted in us by God and articulated by the Church. Conscience is someone’s voice. It may be a voice teaching us to meet standards of excellence in a craft. It may be the voice of our community as we live toward a sense of belonging. The voice of the Church, though, is the most important because it stands against the inclination to self-interest that threatens our ability to love God and neighbor. This caution against self-interest is the “conscience of sacrifice.”
The conscience of sacrifice is the conscience of Jesus Christ. It is a conscience grounded on the simple conviction that there is something greater than self. The sacrifice comes in simply preferring it to self. It is easy to be content with religion when its advantages are not outweighed by its demands. Yet when a person has been gifted with an experience of God, the demands become an attraction. The monk and serious Christians live from this conscience. It is oriented toward true happiness rather than the mere multiplication of pleasant experiences.
The conscience of sacrifice is keenly aware of its freedom, of its call to be like Christ, and just as keenly aware that it falls short… and falls short because of one’s choices. Were the young Florida girl to visit New Melleray she would find a warm, empathic welcome from the community and our many friends and neighbors who pray with us daily. We all know what it is like to make wrong, and even tragic, choices.
There is something in the essence of the human person which is uniquely between oneself and one’s God. No creature can intervene. The inner voice speaks to this. IF this something is not given to God, it goes ungiven. Conscience is formed by what we pay attention to. As St. Paul taught the Romans, do not be conformed to the spirit of this age, but instead be transformed by having the mind of Christ.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
[Scripture Readings: 1Jn. 1: 5-2: 2; Mt. 2: 13-18 ]
I know of no greater challenge to our confidence in the meaningfulness of life than suffering, especially undeserved suffering. Many of us at one time or another have probably found ourselves asking, Why me? Or, What did I do to deserve this? Even when we can trace events back to our own negligence or carelessness, the results often seem out of proportion to a mistake or an understandable oversight. When suffering is the result of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, faith and hope can be pushed to their limits. For some people faith and hope are pushed beyond their limits, and they can no longer accept that behind the tragedies of life there is a good God, who desires our happiness.
This is a jarring message to put into the middle of the joy and glad tidings of Christmas, yet this is exactly what St. Matthew does. He presents the plight of infants caught up in the senseless jealousy of a tyrant. Matthew doesn’t give an explanation for what happened beyond Herod’s rage; he only quotes the prophet Jeremiah. Then he narrates Jesus’ return from Egypt and goes into the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Is this Matthew’s way of saying that there is no satisfactory explanation for the suffering of the Innocents, but that nevertheless it is part of the human condition; the human condition that God accepted when the Word became flesh?
The Son of God entered fully into our human condition and became like us in everything except sin. Jesus announced God’s forgiveness of our sins and the coming of the Kingdom of God. He met indifference, hostility and rejection. He went about doing good and he was caught up in the jealousy of the religious leaders and the vacillation of a Roman official. He was put to a senseless and ignominious death. There is no satisfactory explanation; only the haunting gospel refrain: The Messiah must suffer. The New Testament does not explain suffering. It presents us with the fact of suffering and God’s answer to suffering: the resurrection. It calls us to faith and hope in God’s fidelity to his promise of forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. It proclaims that behind the tragedies of life there is a good God, who desires our happiness.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
[Scripture Readings: 1Jn. 1:5-2:2; Mt. 2: 13-18]
The theologian Walter Kasper, now Cardinal Walter Kasper, has made the statement that the unmerited and unjust suffering of the innocent is a greater argument against faith in God than all the philosophical and scientific arguments of skeptics and critics of religion. Today’s feast of the Holy Innocents is a sobering and disquieting demonstration of Kasper’s statement. Yet even a casual glance through the newspapers reveals there are examples of unmerited suffering closer to us than the distant past. There are the victims of war and terrorism. There are the victims of natural disasters, who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are the victims of the more subtle and camouflaged violence of economic and social exploitation. There is the violence committed against children and the unborn.
What is even more disquieting is the realization that I have contributed to the suffering of the innocent. True I have no direct impact on world politics and economics, but we all have the power to cause harm in our local situations. There is that haunting question: Who have I harmed because of fear or jealousy or threats to my vanity? How seriously do we take this morning’s reading that none of us can claim to be without sin?
No matter how much we may be scandalized at the extent of the suffering of the innocent, no matter how much we might want God to protect us from ourselves, the answer is not to blame God. We have the freedom to do good or to cause harm. We can use our power constructively or we can abuse it. Sad to say, too often we abuse it, even when we look back and can’t understand why we behaved as we did. Evil in any of its manifestations is irrational and there can be no understanding of the irrational. Our hope lies in the forgiveness of the victims.
But this means that we must be willing to accept the vulnerability of forgiveness. Forgiveness like love cannot be forced or earned. It must be freely given. We cannot claim forgiveness, but we can acknowledge and accept our share of the responsibility for suffering, without trying to hide behind the pretensions of self-righteousness or false innocence. In imitation of Christ we can forgive those who have harmed us. We can walk in the light of Christ, which means following Christ from the manger to the cross. Ultimately suffering cannot be rationally explained. In Christ it can be transformed from senseless suffering into redemptive suffering.