Three feasts of the Christmas octave are drenched in blood: we celebrate St Stephen and St Thomas as martyrs and the Holy Innocents as proto-martyrs. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the coming of the life-giving Prince of Peace should have meant violence and death for so many. We can ‘spritualise’ this fact any way we want. After all, it is true that Christ will always be a sign of contradiction, challenging our ideas about what is important. Today’s feast not only does that, it reminds us that the living out of our Christian vocation cannot be separated from the flesh-and-blood reality of everyday life. We cannot ‘spiritualise away’ our responsibility for others or the evil to which they are subject. Today we must ask ourselves whether our concern for children is mere sentimentality. Do we have a duty to do whatever is in our power to ensure that the life of every child is valued and protected, and if so, how do we fulfil that duty?
The publication of the UNICEF report has highlighted the appalling ways in which children today are being exploited and endangered. The summary for 2017 included
- In the Central African Republic, children were killed, raped, abducted and recruited by armed groups in a dramatic increase in violence;
- Islamist militants Boko Haram forced at least 135 children in north-east Nigeria and Cameroon to act as suicide bombers, almost five times the number in 2016;
- Muslim Rohingya children in Myanmar suffered ‘shocking and widespread violence’ as they were driven from their homes in Rakhine state;
- In South Sudan, more than 19,000 children were recruited into armed forces and armed groups;
- Fighting in Yemen has left at least 5,000 children dead or injured according to official figures, with the real number expected to be much higher;
- In eastern Ukraine, 220,000 children are living under the constant threat from landmines and other unexploded devices left over from the war.
I would want to add to this list the huge number of children denied any chance of life through abortion; those whose lives have been distorted by abuse; and those whose health and welfare could best be described as ‘marginal’. It is shocking to think of the number of children in the UK alone who live below the poverty line. That isn’t a problem ‘out there’, it is a scandal at the very heart of our society; and there is the danger that by tacitly accepting the brutalisation and misvaluing of children, we are storing up massive problems for the future.
Today’s feast is a difficult one at many levels, but it is also one that takes us away from the tinsel and tackiness of the secular Xmas and plunges us into the heart of the real Christmas. Suffering and sacrifice are part of all Christian life, because they were part of Christ’s. But the suffering of children is of a different order, especially when inflicted by the neglect or ill-will of adults. Today we must search our consciences and resolve to do better by every child — not just those in our family or in our locality. Eleven million children are judged to be at risk in Yemen. The quarrels of their seniors are not theirs. Oughtn’t we to be lobbying everyone we can to change the situation? And oughtn’t our prayer to be not only for a change of heart among the people of Yemen and Saudi Arabia but also for forgiveness for ourselves that it has taken us so long to wake up to the evil in our midst?