Remembering the Slaughter of the Innocents means mourning them all . . . or none of them.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay. (The Coventry Carol)
On December 28, the Church recalls the massacre of infants and toddlers recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Having heard from the Magi of the birth of a great king, the tetrarch Herod, anxious to hold on to his precarious puppet rule of Judea under his Roman masters, determines that it’s best to eliminate the competition. The young Jesus, saved by an angelic tip to Joseph, escapes with his family to Egypt. But many do not escape, and on this day we share the grief of their parents, and wonder at the kind of madness it takes to see innocent children as enemies to be slaughtered.
The events of this day have stirred the imagination of artists for centuries. From the restrained pathos of Duccio, to the chaos and terror of Ghirlandaio, to the frozen silence of Bruegel (looking like nothing so much as a pogrom in a Jewish stetl), we are compelled by both the grief of the mothers and the bloody blades of the soldiers. The Slaughter of the Innocents was one of the first English dramas, enacted by the Shearmen and Tailors—the guild of men who used blades—in the town of Coventry, England. As Tom McDonald wrote last week, the Coventry pageant had a profound influence on the future of English theatre, even though all that remains to us is the hair-raising beauty of its lullaby.
The Holy Innocents were not, of course, the first children to be so slaughtered—nor the last. The account in Matthew purposely echoes the story of Moses’ miraculous delivery from the soldiers of the similarly insecure Pharaoh. Throughout history, the massacre is repeated, with such numbing regularity that the anonymous slaughtered innocents are as uncountable as the stars.
In our time, many equate the Slaughter of the Innocents with the death toll of abortion, and use this day to raise awareness of the continuing war on the most innocent of all. This year, there are haunting associations with the murder of children at Sandy Hook. Yet we would be wrong to confine our grief to only certain categories of innocence, only media- or prolife-approved mourning. Because innocents are dying around us daily—on the bullet-ridden streets of Chicago and Trenton and Gaza, in the burning sweatshops of Bangladesh, on the battlefields of Mali and Afghanistan and Syria, under the drones in Pakistan. The innocence of children is massacred daily by physical and sexual abuse, by the grinding hunger of famine, by the orphanmaker AIDS.
And we do not have to look far to discover what kind of everyday madness this is. Jesus himself, with a lifelong innocence beyond that of even the unborn child, did not escape the slaughter. “It is expedient for you that one man die rather than the whole people,” was his death sentence (John 11:50). The death of innocents is always moved by expedience, a deadly logic in which the death of one is justified by the life of many, or the death of many is justified by the life of one. Whether the expedience is political (protecting a precarious power) or personal (allowing my life to go forward without the encumbrances of parenthood) or even insanely incomprehensible, as was the “motive” of the Sandy Hook shooter, it is always an equation in which innocence is deemed, by somebody, expendable. The innocents are always collateral damage.
That’s why being satisfied with mourning a few of them, one day out of the year, isn’t enough. The poet Dylan Thomas reflected on this after learning of the death of a young London girl during the World War II blitz. In his poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London,” Thomas defied simple sentimentality:
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
We mourn them all, or none of them. We don’t waste breath sighing—we work to stop the slaughter, to change the equation of expedience wherever and however we can. We pledge ourselves to peace and reconciliation.
These—peace and reconciliation—are another gift to us from the town of Coventry. In 1940, Coventry’s Anglican Cathedral of St Michael was destroyed by a bombing raid. Instead of mourning or nursing hatred, the community made a choice to change the equation:
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction. Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Richard Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred. This has led to the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support in areas of conflict throughout the world.
Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.
So today, let us sing the Coventry Carol in mourning for all the innocents sacrificed.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
And then let us not simply mourn and sigh forever, but neither say nor sing their parting without doing whatever we can to sheathe the blades, to end the slaughter, to bring life in their name—which is the Name of Jesus.
UPDATE: I’m adding links to several other provocative and prayerful reflections on today’s feast:
Catholic Sensibility (H/T Fran Rossi Szpylczyn) reflects on how we are numbered among the soldiers who carried out the massacre.
Public Catholic Rebecca Hamilton reminds us that the peace of Christmas comes wrapped in thorns.
Joseph Susanka, moved especially by this week’s birth of Susanka Son Seven, stubs his soul on the liturgical cycle—and includes a link to Fr Steve Grunow’s Coventry Carol post at The Word on Fire.