For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.”
The Habit of Being
Jack was baptized nine years ago today. At the time I was too distracted and depressed to realize the significance of the date: the feast of Holy Innocents, the church’s commemoration of the children slaughtered by King Herod in his failed attempt to kill the infant Jesus.
The church where I worship does not follow the Common Lectionary readings, so on the day of Jack’s baptism we did not read Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the innocents. Instead, we continued in our journey through the book of Isaiah, which we had been studying for several months. The passages that day were from Isaiah 24 and 26.
My friend Mike began to read:
The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers
the heavens languish together with the earth…
The wine dries up,
the vine languishes
all the merry-hearted sigh.
The mirth of the timbrels is stilled,
the noise of the jubilant has ceased,
the mirth of the lyre is stilled.
No longer do they drink wine with singing…
The city of chaos is broken down,
every house is shut up so that no one can enter…
all joy has reached its eventide;
all gladness of the earth is banished.”
As Mike read, my friend Sprague drew a picture on a large chalkboard beside the communion table—a tree, barren and broken, fire consuming its jagged branches while the earth beneath split open to devour it.
We all sat in stunned silence as the litany of horrors went on, as the flames of fire in Sprague’s drawing grew more and more violent and chaotic.
It was a sobering beginning to a baptism. Tears stung my eyes. Is this the world my child has been born into? Did I labor only to bring him into a world of desolation and despair? Where is the joy and peace of Christmas in the midst of this brokenness and pain?
Isaiah’s words hung heavy in the air. All joy has reached its eventide; all gladness of the earth is banished. And Sprague’s drawing—the tree engulfed in flames, falling into the broken earth—riveted our eyes.
We may not have mentioned the Holy Innocents 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. How the mothers and fathers must have felt like that tree, broken down, desolate, helpless, hopeless.
When Matthew tells the the story of the children’s slaughter, he 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.”
And isn’t that how it feels on this Holy Innocents day, when we remember all the children who have died at the hands of those with more power than they? When we think of the Innocents killed, so senselessly, in Connecticut just two weeks ago? It is a cause for wailing and lamentation.
At first glance, it seems wholly out of place that this commemoration of death, especially the brutal death of the innocent, should fall on the fourth day of Christmas. Why mar such a joyful season with the appalling remembrance of this horror?
But the wisdom of our forebears becomes evident when we pause to consider this question. 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.
On the day of Jack’s baptism, 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 in the face of the unimaginable suffering of children?
Then, oh blessed then, my friend Steve began to read, and 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…
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.”
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.”
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, 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 and and holds it in hope and faith and love.
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 that is 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.
And one day—we will.
—an edited excerpt from my book
Icon of The Holy Innocents written by Suzanne Zoole. From the website of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Atlanta.