Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Apocalypse 14:1-5 / Matthew 2:13-18

Carol singing is one of the happy gifts of the Christmas season. There are few people in this time, even among those who do not believe, who do not delight in the beauty, the joy, the warmth and hope, which radiate from Christmas carols. However, in the midst of even the most beloved songs in this hallowed time, we find chilling words.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, / The cross be borne for me, for you

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom: / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Herod the king, in his raging, / charg├Ęd he hath this day / his men of might in his own sight / all children young to slay.

 Apart from the bowdlerized versions of Christmas carols that try their best to erase these grim words, we find that, if not at the heart of the Nativity then certainly quite near it, are the somber strains and echoes of the Passion and Death.

If we are lucky, we will find ourselves singing and remembering these words along with the other rightfully joyful and happy songs. Why? First of all, because, as the carols remind us, Christ was born for this. That is, the mystery of the Incarnation, the whole drama of the Word made flesh, inaugurated in the Annunciation and made manifest in the Nativity, was directed from before the dawn of time in the hidden counsels of the Father, to Golgotha and the Sepulchre. While we can and do rightly revel in other facets of this joyful mystery of our faith during these holidays, we ought never to lose sight of that mystery more terrible and awful, but for that reason more disclosing of Love inexpressible and exhaustible than the silent Word in the manger, namely the Word nailed to the wood of the Cross.

Second, we are for that reason better prepared to allow that the joys of Christmas are compatible with the sorrows of this world. That justifiable lightness of heart that comes from the events of Bethlehem must stand, undiluted to be sure, but stand nonetheless side by side with the trials and anxieties of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, as well as the bloody horror of the massacre of the infants, the Holy Innocents whom we honor this day. Even in fiction, the embodiment of robust and hearty joy found in Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present is the guardian of the wretched children, more monstrous than human, of Ignorance and Want. Where those of us well off and comfortable might do well not to exclude such as these from our thoughts in this holy time, we may hope that our brothers and sisters who suffer terribly might not be altogether deprived of Christmas joy.

Third, sorrow and pain is not only compatible with the joy of Christmastide, it is rather the proper fruit of that joy. To honor the Christ in the manger is to commit oneself to a life conformed to his. To worship the silent Word in the cave of Bethlehem is to journey towards that other cave in a garden near Jerusalem, where no body before had been buried. This is why the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, even though a thing grievous and terrible in itself, is a cause not for inconsolable mourning but for thanksgiving. These infants, before they could confess Christ with their lips, did so with their blood, and so more perfectly than we who stumble in our discipleship, they responded to the birth of the infant King in the way we all must, in one manner or another. If we would honor Christmas, then we would embrace a life in which our bloody death in witness to the Gospel is not a tragedy, but a noble and fitting return, a conforming of ourselves to the Christ who, even from his infancy, had already turned his face to Jerusalem.

Then, woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and say
For Thy parting nor say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

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