(Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Reubens, 1611 or 1612, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, December 28, 2011)
Readings for Dec. 28, the feast day of the Holy Innocents:
Psalm 26 (Morning)
Psalm 126 (Evening)
or Isaiah 54:1-13
or Mark 10:13-16
Sometimes, our liturgical calendar relies on myth more than we care to admit. The story of Herod ordering the slaughter of all male children age two and under is probably one of those times. The only account of this story is in Matthew 2, with no secular history to back it up--which, frankly, throws doubt into it being a factual historical event. One theory is that it is a "morphing" of Josephus' account of Herod the Great murdering his own sons. However, the lack of secular history doesn't negate the possibility it happened. It could well have been this was such a minor episode in the reign of Herod at the time--remember, no one would have had the hindsight we do, that this child is the Messiah--no secular historian worth his salt would have cared about infanticide in a little berg like Bethlehem. Infanticide was a common way to deal with one's enemies and to put down uprisings.
All the same, the people at the time the Gospel of Matthew would have been hooked on this story, because they would have been familiar the story of the Exodus, and with prophetic statements in Hosea and Jeremiah. They had heard of "people out to get rid of the offspring of the chosen" before, many times. Regrettably, infanticide still exists in the world, so it still has the power to hook us, too. Killing innocent little ones who have yet to experience the fullness of life is one of the most reprehensible things we can think of, when we think about the evil that still exists in this tired old world.
Yet we psychologically kill "innocence" all the time, more than we care to admit. It's a rare person who has lived his or her life without someone trying to kill something holy and innocent inside of us because of envy or resentment on their part. It's also (unfortunately) a rare person who has never felt the pang of jealousy and wanted to kill it in someone else. Cain is still with us, I'm afraid.
Worse yet, we still, like the historical Herod--implode and order the killing of the innocent offspring of joy and hope within ourselves. There would be no need of therapists, self-help books, and Twelve Step programs if we didn't order all these "killings" of the innocence of self and others.
Our readings today take us on a full tour of the emotional spectrum--joy, rebirth, barrenness, wrath, vindication, and singing. But perhaps the most important message is in either choice of the Gospel when the disciples are told by Jesus to stop chasing away the little children and let them come. It's our tendency, in this busy world, to inflate everything we do into Very Serious Business and push aside innocent things like joy and wonder and the heart tug of the "gee whiz" moment. When we see those things in ourselves, we push them away--and although we may not actively kill them, there might be a place where they simply go off and die of neglect and starvation. When we see them in others, in our own underfed state, it's too painful--so in jealousy we try to kill theirs, too, and often in a more active fashion than the slow starvation of our own.
When we embrace our own holy innocence, we change the playing field from one of scarcity to abundance, and suddenly there's room enough for all the innocent children to sit at the foot of Jesus. Who's the hungry self-marginalized innocent child we should let draw near to us today?