Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmastide - Innocents

According to the old carol, on the fourth day of Christmas your true love sends to you four calling birds. But in the old calendar observed by many in the Christian Movement this day brings with it something quite different. The fourth day of Christmastide is the "Day of the Holy Innocents" when we are brought up short by the fact that, in the midst of Mary and Joseph's joy over "the newborn king," other babies were being slaughtered in an effort to eliminate him...

We discussed this hideous event during Advent to show the cosmic opposition Jesus and his Kingdom faced from the second they appeared. But this day calls us back to consider it from another angle.

Here is the story, as told by Matthew:
When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: 
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.
(Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2 verses 16 - 18, Common English Bible)

These children weren't martyrs; their parents probably had never met Jesus or his family. Unlike St. Stephen, the original martyr who was commemorated on Monday, the babies of Bethlehem had no desire to sacrifice themselves for the cause of the infant we honor Christmas Day. They were truly innocents, slaughtered without a qualm by the local king, caught up in the carnage of war -- like so many other innocents down to our time. And what was happening in Bethlehem was indeed a war.

Followers of Jesus have taken to calling these babies "protomartyrs" because, while they did not willingly die for his cause, they are the first people to die on his account. This can very easily lead into a discussion (which I do not propose to have right now) of  human suffering and oppression. Here we can simply note that the suffering of innocents is sometimes thought of as "God's Problem," but if it is a problem, it is one that God does not shy away from. He embraces it from Bethlehem to Calvary and holds it closely to his heart.

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