Holy Innocents 2013

Those who don’t have children of their own are inclined to be sentimental about the children of others — provided they remain at a safe distance, of course. At Christmas such sentimentality is not only indulged, it is almost obligatory. We are invited to become misty-eyed at the thought of children hanging up their stockings for Father Christmas or coo and goo over Nativity Plays where the actors are barely three feet tall and Baby Jesus is all blue-eyed plastic perfection. Then comes the feast of the Holy Innocents and our sentimentality is ripped to shreds by the brutal fact of child murder.

Why does this feast come before Epiphany, when, chronologically speaking, it should follow after? The answer is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the Infant Saviour and their feast is therefore included among those of the Christmas Octave so that the link between the two may be more clearly seen. It is a disturbing feast, turning upside down our ideas about the special status of childhood and the protection every adult should afford every child.

In the Catholic Church this feast is often appropriated to two causes: the pro-life, anti-abortion movement which seeks to put an end to abortion and the situations that make it ‘necessary’ or ‘desirable’; and the attempt to end the evil of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) and exploitation. Both are, in my view, very worthy causes, though I sometimes hesitate over the methods adopted by some groups. What I find difficult, however, is the way in which appealing to the Holy Innocents as patrons of these causes dulls our sense of outrage at the original event. What was God thinking of to allow such a horror?

There is no easy answer to such a question, but unless we take on board the scandal of this feast, I think we are failing to take on board the enormity of the Incarnation. When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he overthrew every previous notion about God. The feast of the Holy Innocents urges us to rethink our own ideas about him, which may well have become tinged with some of the sentimentality I wrote about earlier. We are confronted with a God who is above and beyond anything we can think or imagine. Our only certainty is that he loves us, loves us enough to become one of us and suffer and die for us. The little children slain by Herod may be to us a type, an abstract of innocence, but to him they are individuals, chosen and precious in his sight. Thinking and praying about that may teach us something we never knew before.

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Being Unsentimental About Children

Just occasionally, I have the impression that we confuse sentimentality with caring. An old person dies after weeks of neglect and we trumpet our indignation, but were we there when he/she needed help? Were we ready to do the caring ourselves or do we merely want to blame others for what we perceive to be their shortcomings?

Children are always in the news because of the terrible things adults do to them, especially if they involve sex, but I think that there, too, we operate a double standard. We want our children to be ‘innocent’, but we know very well that our society sexualises children from a very young age. The Crown Prosecution Service has criticised one of its barristers for describing a 13-year-old sex abuse victim as ‘predatory’ and ‘sexually experienced’. While we shrink, rightly, from the use of such language, at the back of our minds there may be a slight hesitation. Should we be surprised if children adopt sexual attitudes and behaviours inappropriate to their age and understanding if we bombard them with sexual messages from their earliest years?

Perhaps if we were less sentimental and more honest, we would make better carers.  Seeing people as people rather than as consumers or, worse still, commodities would be a good place to start.

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