Holy Innocents 2017

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?

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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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Herod’s Solution

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.

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Holy Innocents

This feast is often used by Catholics to condemn the evil of abortion. I have already written something on the subject here. Today I would rather share some thoughts with you about the strange event to which the gospel refers: Herod’s murder of young boys in the Bethlehem district. The historicity of the event is often questioned, although we all know that not every villainy is documented in ways that would satisfy a court of law. What interests me, however, is Rachel ‘weeping for her children because they are no more’ (referring back to Jeremiah 31. 15 – 17).

In their original context these words relate to Israel’s experience of exile and restoration. I find unconvincing attempts to turn the words into some sort of messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. I think Matthew uses the phrase to express the grief and hopelessness of Jewish mothers suffering the loss of their sons at Herod’s orders and links to Ramah because that is the place from which the Jews were gathered together for deportation to Babylon. It is, if you like, a coded message: death and destruction were not far from Jesus from the very beginning of his earthly existence as they have never been very far from any of the Chosen People.

There are a number of Jewish midrashim on ‘Rachel weeping’ which add to our sense of the universalism of Matthew’s point. In one of them Rachel moves heaven and earth and the Holy One, blessed be he, to weep with her; in another she not only weeps but argues with God and prevails upon him to rescue Israel from danger. In other words, the grief of Rachel is the grief of every generation which experiences death and exile.

Today, with so many refugees in the world and the borders of many hitherto hospitable nations being closed against them, we could spend a few moments thinking about the plight of those who, like the Master we follow, ‘have not where to lay their heads’ and whose lives are vulnerable to attack. Tyranny did not die with Herod, nor did the coming of the Prince of Peace destroy the cruelty in human hearts.

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