A Reflection on the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents
God of the dispossessed,
defender of the helpless,
you grieve with all the women who weep
because their children are no more;
may we also refuse to be comforted
until the violence of the strong
has been confounded,
and the broken victims have been set free
in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is Christmas time, our trees are still up and decorated, the lights twinkling. The kitchen still smells of baking and Christmas dinner. We are cozy in the wake of celebration and
remembering, dreaming about what the New Year will bring. And there, like a smudge in this joyous week between Christmas and New Year’s sits an event we would rather not look at. Only three days after Christmas and we find ourselves face to face with the commemoration of the Holy Innocents.
Matthew’s gospel sums up the horrific event in one single verse: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” One verse sums up the mass killing of infants and his justification. In the past years, I have thought about this day in terms of the children that died in the story, my thoughts fixed on the tragedy, wondering how the gospel writer could be so brisk as to sum up all these little lives in a sentence.
This year however, it strikes me differently. I see in that brief account a sentence where the children aren’t even the subject. The real subject of that sentence is Herod and his anger. The Innocents were the recipients, the ones targeted by his fury and insecurity. I see the power differential more clearly than before. You see, before, I never realized that only two verses later Herod is pronounced dead in three quick words, “When Herod died”. Within the span of those three verses, potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of infants are killed and then Herod lives out the rest of his days. This was the first year it sank in that Herod is never reprimanded for his actions, there is no repercussions for this horror. One day a child was playing with his mother, the next day the angry king had that child and all the others killed, just like that. Effortlessly.
Herod snapped his royal fingers and the children were murdered to ensure Herod’s claim to power, privilege, dominance. Their only crime according to Herod, was existing. And when the shock wears off and I am finally able to look up from the bloody bodies of those innocent children and see the powerful Herod grinning on his throne, this story starts to become very relevant to the world I live in.
This year, the whole story feels larger somehow, more widespread. I begin with the innocent children Herod killed and then I start to think of the thousands of Native women who have disappeared and authorities refuse to look for them because they are Native women. I think of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Elijah McCain and Treyvon Martin, and so many others who were killed because they were born in black bodies. I think of the children separated from their families and put into cages at the border simply because they were born somewhere else. I think of Tony McDade and Bree Black who were killed for being Trans people. For Dr. Susan Moore who died of COVID because the system in place wouldn’t listen to her requests for help.
I start to think of those who have died, for those who are struggling to make ends meet and for those suffering during this pandemic because of a power structure that does not lead or help those who need it most. I think of Brandon Bernard who was killed because of a system that believes in execution rather than redemption and reconciliation. I think of the living things and the wild places of this earth that have no means to protect themselves against actions rooted in concepts like extractive economics, profit margins, dividends. We snapped our fingers and they were gone.
Three days ago we rejoiced that the God of the Universe was born in human flesh. We
marveled that God would come and be among us, with us. And then we look at so much death and ask were Emmanuel went. It is hard to look at the death of George Floyd or those children being kept in cages and remember that God is with us. It is hard to say Peace on earth and then look at a world that is filled with so much pain.
This year I am filled with so much anger at this story. That so much violence could take place because, out of fear and fury, a king declared it. And I know it is overwhelming to think about, to hear all of this and not simply slip into helplessness and weeping. It is so easy to believe that I am powerless against such a system of power.
But what if the story of the Holy Innocents was written into the gospel for another reason? What if it is an invitation for us to take a long loving look at the world, to see the broken places, and to step into them in any way that we can? What if were to take hold of our power and speak the truth knowing that God is with us? What if we are being asked to work with God in the courageous act of peacemaking, in being the hands and feet of God to move this world closer to healing and wholeness? And what would the world look like if we stood and supported others, be it through kind words or picket lines, if we came alongside each other before the system snaps its fingers and they are gone? What if the words “Peace on earth” became defining values, words of action for people to work toward rather than something we put on our Christmas list and forget about until next year? What if the message of the Holy Innocents is that Herod isn’t going to stop until the people say something? What if we could read this story and believe that things could be different?
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us to build the Kingdom of Heaven. This
peacemaking, this speaking truth to power, this loving our neighbor is building the kingdom, a kingdom where all of God’s children are welcome and have a place. And it is messy and difficult and possible. We are not alone for God came to be with us. That is the power and wonder of the Christmas message. Christmas marks the beginning of revolution of love where death and greed and violence will lose. Where all are welcomed and loved. Where healing can happen for us all. The words of Jesus let us know that it doesn’t have to be this way, this way of power and greed and violence. There is another way open to us. We can’t bring all the innocent ones back, but we have the opportunity to listen to their lives and to help do what we can so it won’t happen again. We have the opportunity to help build a new Kingdom and in the process move a little bit closer to having peace on earth.