The Taser's Edge

Why the Massacre of the Holy Innocents?

This year I have been much more aware of the flurry of important days in the Christian calendar right after Christmas.  Christmas Day on the 25th, St. Stephen on the 26th, St. John on the 27th, Holy Name on January 1.  Today the church remembers The Holy Innocents.  To me, it has to be one of the oddest days of the Christian calendar commemorating one of the oddest accounts in the New Testament.  It’s one of those instances where the assigned readings for the day really help flesh out the day’s meaning.

Psalm 124

A song of ascents. Of David.
If the LORD had not been on our side– let Israel say–
if the LORD had not been on our side when men attacked us,
when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive;
the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters would have swept us away.
Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Jeremiah 31:15-17

This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.”  This is what the LORD says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the LORD. “They will return from the land of the enemy.  So there is hope for your future,” declares the LORD. “Your children will return to their own land.”

Revelation 21:1-7

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.

Matthew 2:13-18

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Sometimes the New Testament seems to play loosey-goosey with Old Testament scriptures, but here in Matthew I don’t think that’s what’s happening.  Actually, the church calendar shows that that’s not what’s happening.  On the first day of Christmas, salvation came into the world.  On the second day of Christmas, the martyr Stephen showed that the way of following Christ is the way of death.  On the third day of Christmas, St. John proclaimed the Good News of Christ (and the Revelation of his return).  On the fourth day of Christmas, a tyrant was still in power and the innocents were still being massacred.

Slaughter of the Innocents (1308-1311). Duccio di Buoninsegna.

That is, the church calendar proclaims as true the deepest (for me) scandal of Christianity.  One way to hear the Gospel: God so loved the world that He sent His Son, who came but not to anywhere important, spoke and was ignored, was killed, was raised from the dead, and went back to heaven…and nothing really changed.

We are deeply offended by this 2,000 years later, after the Crusades, after the Inquisition, after World Wars, after the Holocaust, in a world of seemingly never-ending prejudice, hatred, and violence.  And yet, the offense has always been part of the proclamation.  The Holy Spirit impregnates a virgin, the angels sing of her child’s birth, kings journey to worship him as king of all kings, yet though Hope has arrived in the world, he does not save the most innocent of the world from the most evil of the world.

Somehow, the proclamation of the Gospel from the beginning has been that everything has changed and everything will be right even though nothing seems to have changed and nothing seems to be right in the world (as Julian of Norwich will tell you).  And the readings for today, from Jeremiah’s promise that the mourned-for exiles will return (including exiles to the enemy’s land of death-by-violence), to Revelation’s promise that a beautifully re-made world is coming, evidence that the Gospel of Hope is imbedded in (incarnated in) and proclaimed in a world of horrors:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).


Julian of Norwich

And thus our good Lord answered all the questions and doubts I could put forward, saying most comfortably as follows: ‘I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you shall see for yourself that all things shall be well.’  I take ‘I may’ for the words of the Father, I take ‘I can’ for the words of the Son and I take ‘I will’ for the words of the Holy Ghost; and where he says ‘I shall’, I take it for the unity of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one truth; and where he says, ‘You shall see for yourself’, I understand it as referred to the union with the Holy Trinity of all mankind who shall be saved…

It is God’s wish that we should know in general terms that all shall be well; but it is not God’s wish that we should understand it now…

Although our Lord showed me that I would sin, by me alone I understood everyone.  At this I began to feel a quiet fear, and to this our Lord answered me as follows: ‘I am keeping you very safe.’  This promise was made to me with more love and assurance and spiritual sustenance than I can possibly say, for just as it was previously shown that I would sin, the help was also shown to me: safety and protection for all my fellow Christians.  What could make me love my fellow Christians more than to see in God that he loves all who shall be saved as though they were one soul?

Excerpts are from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, translated by Elizabeth Spearing, Penguin Classics.  Today is May 8th, the day Christian tradition assigns to the beginning of Julian’s “Showings”.