The Holy Innocents

Detail from Slaughter of the Innocents
 Duccio di Buoninsegna
Detail from Slaughter of the Innocents
Duccio di Buoninsegna

Dec. 28 is the Feast for the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, in which we honor the first martyrs of the church. And who are these first martyrs? The boys under two slaughtered by King Herod the Great in his desire to eliminate the Messiah who came as a baby. Of course, Joseph had been warned off this in a dream and led the Holy Family to Egypt.

It is a horrendous event which many scholars believe did not occur, but Herod was not known for his kindness (ask the three sons he murdered). Still, as the novelist, Tim O’Brien has shown, stories often tell us more about truth than facts can.

16 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. 
17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “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.”

Matthew 2:16-18
Rachel Weeping for Her Children
Jakob Steinhardt
Rachel Weeping for Her Children
Jakob Steinhardt

In terms of grief, the lines quoted from Jeremiah are especially powerful. The mothers refusing to be comforted, because their children are no more. The idea of refusing to be comforted may seem strange, but it shows the importance of grief. When you lose your child (or someone else you love) you are in grief and you do not need to “get over it” or be comforted in any way. “Rachel” gives way to her grief and allows herself to be consumed by it. If there is a path to healing in grief it requires going into the depths of grief. Of refusing to be comforted.

Our faith has a long history of descending into the darkness as a way of communing with God. The great mystic, St. John of the Cross, tells us that “God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery, transformation, God and Grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.”

St. John lets us see how our descent into grief is a way to trust God and to allow God’s grace to work in us. Without trust in God we “either try to take charge or stop the whole process” which means we are not likely to move forward. As Dostoyevsky writes in Crime and Punishment, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” 

Children are the Holy Innocents and Jesus clearly sees them as conduits of grace on earth. Jesus is sometimes frustratingly vague about what is required to enter Heaven. But he is clear that everyone must become like a little child, a Holy Innocent, to enter the Kingdom. Children offer us the chance to see what we need to be in order to embrace God. By giving ourselves into that grief we can enter the darkness and encounter God as children.

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