The feast of the Holy Innocents, when we commemorate Herod’s massacre of children in an attempt to ‘eliminate’ Jesus, is a very good day on which to think about the gulf between the popular conception of Christmas and the reality. Quite apart from the fact that for many Christmas ended with the Boxing Day leftovers (wrong: there are twelve days of Christmas and the liturgical season of Christmas ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord), there is the rather more fundamental problem of what exactly Christmas is about. ‘Peace and goodwill,’ many will say, conveniently ignoring the fact that we have barely welcomed the birth of Christ when we are celebrating the martyrdom of St Stephen and all the other martyr saints that follow in his train. ‘Family,’ say some; or ‘a festival for the children’ say yet others. All of which is true, but very far from being the whole truth.
I think the Benedictine motto, the word Pax or ‘Peace’ surrounded by a crown of thorns, is a useful image for what Christmas means. Yes, we welcome the Prince of Peace, but we know where his peace-making will lead — to death on the Cross. The Child in the manger will become the Man of Sorrows who redeems us at the expense of his own life. More than that, the Child whose birth we celebrate with feasting and fun will be a sign of contradiction for the whole world, dividing as well as uniting, because when he calls us to follow, we must leave everything else behind. For some, that will mean abandoning family and career in order to follow Jesus as a priest or religious; for others it will mean taking on the demands of discipleship in a world which would rather not know about the ‘difficult’ aspects of Christianity, especially when they challenge the comfortable opinions by which society lives.
So, today, we are challenged by this feast of the Holy Innocents to think about children and how we love and respect them. In an earlier post (Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church), I tried to explain how the Church’s upholding of the sanctity of life is part of a bigger picture. My subsequent postbag contained its fair share of ‘all Catholics are abusers’ insults. More tellingly, I noticed that not one person alluded to any of the good done by Christians — not just Catholics — to try to care for children and their parents because of our conviction about the dignity and worth of every human person: the safe houses and support offered to those who don’t want an abortion; the schools, orphanages, adoption agencies, welfare systems put in place by those whose motivation springs from their acceptance of Christ as Lord and Saviour. No one is claiming that no mistakes have been made; but not to acknowledge the good that is and was done, or at least attempted, is one-sided, in itself a scandal.
It is in this context of care for children and the value of human life, that I myself would place the Catholic Church’s concern about abortion, marriage, adoption, euthanasia, care of the elderly, the death penalty and so on. The media tends to highlight what it finds newsworthy and quotes selectively, often presenting Catholic teaching in a negative light. Add to that some increasingly secular legislation throughout Europe and the U.S.A., and you can see why some begin to think that ‘Herod’s solution’ (crush the opposition by brute force) is alive and well in western democracies.
Herod’s solution is really no solution, of course. Killing those little children nearly two thousand years ago did not make Herod any safer. It did not stop Jesus. It will not stop Christians now. The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem really did change everything. Perhaps we need to spend a little time thinking through the implications of this or we shall have failed to grasp the connection between the crib and the cross and the real cause of all our joy and thanksgiving this Christmas.