Christmas is the most complex season of the Church year. It is the most complex feast on the Christian calendar. Just judging by the liturgical colors we use during the Christmas season, one can see that it is the least stable liturgical season of the year. If you include Advent, and for the purposes of this homily I will, if you include the colors of Advent, we have the purple of penitence, the white of innocence and purity, the green of hope, and the gold of kingship. And, the red, yes, the red of the blood of the martyrs. All of this transpires over a period of a few weeks. This is not the seemingly unrelenting white of the fifty days of Easter.
The Advent and Christmas seasons have a panoply of colors, and of experiences. Elizabeth, once barren, now conceives. Mary, unwed, yet betrothed to Joseph, also conceives. There is no complete and unreserved joy in that annunciation. In one gospel passage, John the Baptist leaps for joy and then, later on, he languishes in prison.
On Christmas day the whole world exults in joy over the birth of a child, then, typically, the next day we Christians remember the blood of the first martyr to die on behalf of our faith. On Christmas day, we remember a child born on a dark night pierced by a searing star, then only a few days later we remember the slaughter of a host of children, and we wear the color of the blood of martyrs too young to know why they died the vicious death they did.
Yes, Christmas is the most complex season on the Christian calendar. The real Christmas story is not only the PG-13 affair we see so often on Christmas cards and in crèches. But the real Christmas also has all the violence and darkness of an R-rated film.
Christ has not been born into a shake-up snow globe or a Christmas scene portrayed in a Currier and Ives painting. He has been born into this world of ours, full of darkness and complexity. Rather than the pastoral scenes of warmth and intimacy of the manger, we have a much darker reality unfold before us. We place the celebration of the Incarnation amidst a miasma of reds, purples, and blacks. It is as if to remind us exactly what sort of setting the world is for such an event as the Incarnation. It is a dark stage on which this drama first begins to unfold.
If there ever was a wormhole into paradise, then it is the destruction of the Holy Innocents as the hands of Herod. Feeling threatened by some unknown king to come, Herod cracks open the happy orb of Eden; as soon as the new Adam is born we have a new Cain in Herod who dashes the skulls of the innocents against the rocks of fear and distrust.
This is not the Christmas of fluffy sheep, kindly magi, and lowing cattle. The night of Christmas night is certainly silent but there in the silence is the still small scratching of evil at the doorstep. Silent night indeed. Christmas, it would seem, is a horror story worthy of Stephen King. It is no wonder then that the secularization of Christmas replaces such images and stories as these with Santa Claus and Rudolph. The Grinch is about as dark as the secular world is willing to go, and even the Grinch has a miraculous change of heart; his heart grows three sizes and then he is motivated to return all that he had stolen. No real lasting damage is done. What Herod stole, the lives of all those children in Judea, cannot be replaced, even had he experienced a change of heart.
What are we to do with the story of the Holy Innocents? We could just breeze through it, and most do just that since the story is only heard by those who attend Divine Liturgy. We could just disregard the whole event since it is an event from just one of the gospels. But to do so would be to miss one of the main themes of Matthew’s Gospel account of the birth of Christ. Evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing to counteract the good, in the form of God, who so desperately wants to enter our world and make His dwelling with us.
Strangely and perhaps even paradoxically, one of the Christmas messages is about the nature of evil in our world. On the flipside, and this is the good news of Christmas, the good, in the form of God who lives among us is at one and the same time very fragile and very resilient. God comes into our world as an infant, a human infant. One of the most helpless of all God’s creatures. Resilient in that He survives His escape into Egypt, a place not known for its hospitality towards the children of Abraham.
As religious people, what do we take away from this complex situation? As companions of this fragile and resilient Jesus, what are we to do in the 21st Century where God still desperately desires to pitch His tent among us?
In one sense, the Holy Family offers a model for religious life in the 21st Century. Like Mary, we are to ponder all of this complexity in our hearts. Like Joseph, we are to father forth the good God who loves us. Mary notices everything and ponders all in her heart. Joseph shepherds the young family on what must have been a wild journey into the deserts of Egypt. Mary was no Pollyanna. Joseph was not a man ruled by his fears and anxieties, as was Herod. Our spiritual exercises teach us to contemplate the good alongside the bad. Our spiritual exercises also teach us to follow and pursue consolation, not a silly, postcard happiness but a freedom from anxiety, a freedom from upsetting doubts.
Soon, we will be on the road to Egypt with the Holy Family. A road that is more unknown than known, more dangerous than it is peaceable. To ignore this would be to ignore the Christmas message: evil exists and good is fragile and resilient. Thankfully, our fragility is made even more resilient in the food we are about to consume. This is not the milk and cookies left out for Santa, but the Body and Blood of our Savior.
I wonder if Jesus was remembering these children “when He called a child, whom He put among the disciples, and said,” ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in Me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea’” (Matthew 18:2-6).
It seems that the innocent and innocence are always in danger of being slaughtered by the tyrants of this world. Whether we call it Herod, Archelaus, fear, poverty, war, hunger, injustice, violence, addiction, despair, sorrow, death, indifference, or any one of a thousand other names we use to identify them, there is always a tyrant that seeks to destroy the divine life, a tyrant that wants to kill the holiness in this world, a tyrant that proclaims itself as ruler and denies God is with us. I suspect each of us can name times when our innocence was slaughtered and times when we slaughtered the innocence of another.
Yet, all is not lost or hopeless. Herod is not the only actor in this story. There are others who show us a different way. There is St. Joseph, spouse of Mary and guardian of Jesus. There are the Magi from the East. Herod destroys, Joseph protects, and the Wise Men adore.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents sets before us a harsh truth. “In the face of the Ultimate, one must either destroy or protect and adore” (adapted from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, p. 91). Within that truth is a question each of us must answer.
It was not enough that Christ was born in Bethlehem in the cold winter. Those humble people: ordinary shepherds, ordinary townsfolk who visited with him, and the Magi from outside the Jewish territory who angered Herod. Innocent children were slaughtered because Christ, the Light of the word was born.
Christ born at Christmas is the Light of the Gentiles. He is the source of life. He causes the rise and the fall of many. He is the sign of contradiction. And as a result, a sword would not only pass through Mary’s soul but through the hearts of many mothers and the lives of innocent children, by the reckless command of Herod.
Herod, a Roman appointee, the political king of the Jews, was not happy that the birth of Christ the real King had made such a noise in the community and in the neighborhood. He became jealous and threatened by the Kingship of Christ. Herod was not happy that the shepherds left their flocks to go and see the Newborn King. He was not happy that Magi, who came from a foreign land, perhaps from Persia, went to visit with Jesus the long-awaited King of the Jews with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Magi, as we know, were led by a star. Usually, this comes with a significant event. And it does not happen every day. Magi do not come from the East every day looking for the King of the Jews in Judea. Naturally, it was very disturbing to Herod, who felt threatened.
Herod quickly made up his mind to kill Jesus. But, he had to cover up his evil plan by making a pretense to the Magi. But the mystery of the birth of Christ kept unfolding as planned by God. The Magi, after their visit with Christ, took another route home as directed by God. Joseph, too, was directed to rise and take Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. When Herod realized that the Magi had betrayed him, he became enraged and ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas thinking Jesus would be one of the victims.
Herod was nothing more than a pretender, a liar, a murderer, a bully, a jealous and power-hungry individual. He had no respect for children and their families. He cared very little about the sufferings and pains he inflicted on those mothers and fathers watching their two- years-old baby boys slaughtered in the broad daylight. What pain, what sorrow, and what horror Herod had created and inflicted on so many innocent people.
No one wants to experience emotional and physical pain and suffering, especially when it is caused by someone else. Suffering can come to us in a difficult co-worker, an argumentative friend, an abusive spouse or it can come to us in the form of illness, drug or alcohol addiction, unemployment, or financial difficulties.
Jealousy can also inflict pain and difficulties on family, friends, and neighbors. Injustices and all forms of violence, which still exist in our society today, can do the same. Herod slaughtered the innocent children with a sword. What about those in positions of power and authority who have sexually abused and “slaughtered” the lives of vulnerable children?
Supposing you have a brother, sister or friend who does not see anything wrong with abortion or who challenges or ridicules your faith? What about wars that are not really called for? Victims of such violence are not usually military combatants but innocent civilians, including women and children.
What Faith does for us is that it enables us to see suffering with the eyes of Christ. Because of Christ, suffering takes on a new meaning when we see in the Light of the Cross of Christ and the hope of the Resurrection.
The Birth of Christ brings us hope. The birth of Christ sets us free. The sufferings of Bethlehem were temporary. But the joy promised by the prophets was fulfilled in Christ at Christmas and will last forever. Our God can work through a disaster to blessings and from death to life.
We remember today those Holy Innocents whose lives were cut short by jealousy and hatred. Let us not forgot also that there are thousands of innocent children around the world murdered every day by abortion, starvation, and negligence. No, let us not forget them, but let us pray fervently for them, that God will welcome them into the light of His presence. And let us pray fervently as well for those whose indifference, selfishness, and ignorance kill thousands of innocents every day. May the Light and Word of God, Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, convert their hearts, have mercy on them, and forgive them of their sins.