Today is Holy Innocents, the day the Church remembers Herod’s slaying of the Bethlehem infants. It is also the seventh anniversary of Jack’s baptism. In honor of both events, I’m posting an excerpt from my book.
On the day of Jack’s baptism, Isaiah’s words hung heavy in the air: “All joy has reached its eventide; all gladness of the earth is banished.”
Beside the communion table, our friend Sprague’s drawing—a tree engulfed in flames, falling into the broken earth—held our riveted eyes.
We did not mention the Holy Innocents at my church that day. We may not have even thought of them. But they were there, devoured by the sword just as surely as Sprague’s tree was devoured by earth and flame.
Herod ordered the death of all the children, not just the male children, though he surely knew the girls were no threat to him. What a horror it was, the slaughter of all those little ones. How the mothers and fathers must have felt like that tree, broken down, desolate, helpless, hopeless.
After telling the story of the children’s slaughter, Matthew quotes Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more. (Mt 2:18)
At first glance, it seems out of place that this commemoration of death, especially the brutal death of the innocent, should fall on the third day of Christmas. Why mar such a joyful season with the appalling remembrance of this horror?
Fleming Rutledge says, “The Christmas story is anchored to our lives and to the wickedness of this world by the grief of Rachel… The authors of Scripture did not turn away from the unimaginable suffering of children. God the Father did not turn away. Jesus did not turn away.”
Placing Holy Innocents here, in the midst of Christmas, forces us to face the wickedness of this world which will intrude upon even our most joyful celebrations, showing them to be incomplete, premature.
Similarly, Sprague’s drawing seemed to mock us as we muddled through the service, giving our tithes and offerings, praying, singing our praises to God. How to give praise to an Almighty God when evil and suffering exist in the world?
Then my friend Steve began to read, and my friend Susan drew on another chalkboard, on the other side of the communion table.
On that day, this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God sets up victory
like walls and bulwarks.
Open the gates,
so that the righteous nation that keeps faith
may enter in.
Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
for in the Lord God
you have an everlasting rock….
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (Is 26: 1-4, 19)
Susan also drew a tree, but this one was living, its branches, heavy with green leaves and red fruit, reaching to the heavens. It grew on a hilltop, and at its roots was a city, circled by children laughing and dancing.
During Christmas, we celebrate the truth that Christ, the Light of the World, is with us even in the darkness, and he is the light which no darkness can overcome.
That is why Holy Innocents needs to be couched within the celebratory season that is Christmas: in grappling with death and evil in the midst of a season of celebration, the celebration itself reminds us that death and evil do not have the last word, just as they did not have the first word.
The first word was Christ, and the last word is Christ.
Suffering is held within the loving arms of the God who created the cosmos, who became flesh and lived among us, who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes.
In Matthew’s account of the Holy Innocents, he ends his quote from Jeremiah with the chilling words “they are no more.” But the passage he is quoting goes on:
Thus says the Lord:
keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for…they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future, says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country. (Jer 31:16-17)
Placing Holy Innocents in the midst of the Christmas season reminds us that in the end, there will be no more death or crying or pain. In the end the children will be restored to their parents, their siblings, their aunts and uncles and grandparents. In the end we will be reunited with our lost loved ones. In the end there will be wholeness and perfect communion. In the end there will be great rejoicing.
In the meantime, we live with the hope of that promise, but not yet its fulfillment. We glimpse the joy of the end in our celebration of Christmas (the season, not simply the day), but we live in the reality of Holy Innocents: bloodshed, violence, separation, heartache.
For many in our world, even Christmas is a season of darkness, a time when the loss of loved ones, the reality of loneliness, the pain of estrangement is made all the sharper by its contrast with the prevailing mood of joy that the season engenders in others.
Holy Innocents brings that suffering into focus, validating its reality and reminding us that God is present with us in the midst of our pain. Christmas does not ignore pain; it embraces it and transforms it.
Those chalk drawings at the front of the sanctuary on the day of Jack’s baptism spoke to the reality of Holy Innocents, and also the reality of Christmas: the dead tree on one side of the communion table and the baptismal font, the living tree on the other.
How fitting that my son was baptized right in the middle.
For is that not where we all live—between the now and the not-yet of Christ’s promise of life? So often our present experience of death and desolation and despair seems overwhelming and more real than the promise of life. But sometimes, thanks be to God, we feel we live in the city of life, where children laugh and sing and dance for joy.