Today, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Bishop David Reed reflects on this day and the killing of innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut.
On this day that we remember the innocent children slain by Herod after the birth of Christ, I have been reflecting on the slaughter of the little children in Newtown, Connecticut. It is so hard to fathom—let alone think about—the horror of that morning, momentary for the victims, lifelong for their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. The evil unleashed upon the innocents that morning is senseless, defying explanation, and leading many to wonder, “Where was God?” That is a question that Christians, I think, above all others, must take with utter seriousness. We are the ones, after all, who insist that God is love…that God’s love abides…that God is actively involved in this world…that the Incarnation (Emmanuel, “God-with-us”) means, once and for all, that God’s love is so full and complete that He chooses to be enfleshed, to become one with us.
Historically, the Church has taken this issue to heart, so much so that there is a whole subset of theology (called “theodicy”) which wrestles with the question, “If God is good, loving and omnipotent, how come there’s so much evil in the world?” You’ll be glad to know I’m not writing a reflection on theodicy; I mention it so you’ll know there’s nothing unfaithful or unchristian about asking such questions of God: “Why?” or “Where were you?” It seems instead that these questions are faithful, Christian and biblical (see the Psalms of lament and mourning).
The Sandy Hook massacre reminds us in an intensely, painfully concentrated way, that this world which God created and called “good” is still fallen, still broken by sin. Someone once observed that sin is “the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine.” That is, you only have to open your eyes, or open the newspaper, to know the reality of sin. Though sin and death are defeated and “swallowed up” in Christ’s death and resurrection, they clearly have not surrendered to God. The evidence for that is all around us (and within us), but rarely—thanks be to God—are we confronted by it in such an unavoidable and heart-breaking way.
We have no easy answers to offer those who grieve or are angry, those whose faith is stretched to the breaking point by events like this, or those of no faith who mock and ask, “Where is your God now?” To the question, “Why?” we can certainly answer, at the right time, “Because of sin,” or “Because of profound insanity,” or “Because of evil” or “Because of free will.” All answers like that are true, or at least partially true, but of course, they do not finally satisfy us or ease our fears and doubts.
What we have to offer, after all our other answers have fallen short, is, as St. Paul said, “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2) What we have is a Lord we follow who for love of sinners became incarnate for our salvation. And where He leads us is to the same places and people He went: to the broken-hearted, the beat-down, the overlooked, the world-weary and soul-starved…to the slaughtered innocents.
Finally, the faithful response of the Church—and our response as individual Christians—is to enter into such suffering and to stand with those who are suffering. Where the Cross is planted is where we are called to go. This is true whether it’s a homeless shelter, a war zone, a nursing home, a loved one’s hospital room, or Sandy Hook Elementary School. The response of the Church to stupid, senseless suffering is not “an answer” or a theological or biblical defense of God. It is the Cross, and a God who, seeing all the suffering and anguish of his beloved creation, says, “Let me go there.”
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, which falls on December 28, is usually overlooked, partly because, coming so soon after Christmas Day, who’s got the energy or the attention span to keep the feast? But I think it’s overlooked also because it commemorates such an awful day, a day more awful still because it’s right after the great and joyful feast of Christmas, in which we do all in our power to welcome a helpless baby find a place in this world and in our hearts and homes. Holy Innocents forces us to contemplate the darkness into which that Child is born.
Since very early in its history, the Church has remembered the despicable and heartless cruelty of the aging King Herod who, determined to eliminate all possible threats to his power, ordered the murder of all male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area two years old and younger. This was in response to the news the Wise Men brought as they followed the star, seeking the newborn King (Matthew 2:16-18). This may seem like an impossible or exaggerated cruelty to us, but it’s consistent with how Herod ruled. And, of course, we don’t have to look very far or long ago for other instances when children suffered terribly because of tyrants and madmen.
I wonder—and I had not thought of this before—I wonder if Jesus’ great love and respect for children arose partly out of his awareness of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in his quest to kill the baby Jesus. The horror story would have been well-known and often-told in Jesus’ generation. Maybe, at some point in his growing up, he became aware that the killing of the baby boys was related to his own birth. I wonder if–when Jesus said things like, “Let the children come to me; don’t hinder them,” and “Unless you become like one of these little children, you can’t enter the Kingdom”—I wonder if Jesus was thinking of those murdered children, carrying them in his heart. And maybe he wasn’t saying it just that day and in that place, but for all time and all places.
In the darkness cast over this beautiful season by the killings in Newtown, we all ask (as the people asked John the Baptist), “What then shall we do?” We are limited, of course, in that we are here and not there, and so we can do little directly. We can and should pray: for the suffering parents and siblings and friends; for the whole community; for the first responders and for all who will surely suffer for a long time to come; for the many churches which have opened themselves to all this pain and willingly, lovingly entered into it. Like Jesus does. If appeals are made for donations to support those who struggle to live on, we can give generously.
Beyond that, maybe we should willingly enter into the conversation about what has become of us, as a people, so that violent death is so “routine” in our culture. Everyone will have their favorite piñata to take a swing at (i.e., Gun control! Arm school administrators!), but I’m thinking of a broader conversation about life (and death) in a culture like ours where life is cheap, violence is entertainment, people revel in meanness and cynicism, and the inherent worth of a human being is diminished and trivialized. But that is a conversation for a later time.
For now, as we celebrate the Christmas Season, the question, “What then shall we do?” might center rightly on the children within our personal world. Those of you with young children are surely holding them a little closer this Christmas. Those of us with older children (or who are older children), may take those around us a little less for granted, be a little more thankful for them. But I think we can all do some things for all the children we will encounter in the coming days. Here are a few things we can give them every day, not just on Christmas:
Attention…room…time…patience…your clear delight in them…laughter…comfort…a story…the Christmas story…the assurance they are loved simply because they are… forgiveness…grace…enthusiasm for whatever they are enthusiastic about…a welcoming church home…a sense of place and of belonging…Well, there’s lots more that you can add to that list on your own.
If Jesus is true, then we know how God’s heart was shattered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We know the tears he shed. We know also how he immediately sent an army of people to surround and gather up and hold all those who were and are suffering, and how he went with them. If Jesus is true, if Christmas is real, then we know that Jesus has once again said, “Let the children come to me,” and welcomed the holy innocents into his heavenly kingdom where there is no pain or suffering, but life in all its joy and abundance.
–David Reed, December 28, 2012,
Suffragan Bishop, Diocese of West Texas
The collect for the day:
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The readings for the day: