The Tragic Beauty of Christmas: The Massacre of the Innocents

The Tragic Beauty of Christmas: The Massacre of the Innocents December 27, 2011

Just a few days after the celebration of Christmas, the light of Bethlehem is eclipsed and the dark shadows of life return to the stories of young Jesus.  Tucked between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6), the Massacre of Infants or Slaughter of Innocents is remembered.  In the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian traditions, this moment in the biblical story is recalled on December 28; the Orthodox tradition sets aside December 29 as a day of mourning for Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem. There is no feasting this day; just the recognition that life is both tragic and beautiful and that although the light has come, the powerful and greedy routinely seek to extinguish it.

According to Matthew’s Gospel (2:13-18), following the departure of the magi, Joseph has premonitory dream, in which he hears the voice of God, “Get up, take up the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.”  There is a disturbance in the force, to use the imagery of the Star Wars saga, and God is moving through the shifting vibrations to alert Joseph through the nocturnal wisdom of the unconscious. Discovering that he’s been fooled by the magi, Herod is about to order the murder of every child in Bethlehem under two years of age.

The flight of the Holy Family and the Massacre of Infants reflects tragic political realities and power dynamics, both then and now.  There is nothing new about infanticide or the willful robbery of a child’s innocence.  Remember the plague, some believe that God initiated, that killed the first-born Egyptian males. Remember Joshua’s killing of every man, woman, and child in Jericho.  Remember the deaths and abuse of aboriginal children in Canada and the United States.  Remember the ashen remains of children in the Holocaust. Remember the slaughter of innocents in inter-tribal conflicts in Africa.   Remember child physical and sexual abuse in various Christian families and sects, some of which are inspired by “spare the rod, spoil the child” theologies.  Remember the familial and governmental neglect of children in the United States today as well as child starvation in the two-thirds world.

Celebration is essential to a life, but it is celebration that embraces both joy and tragedy.  Authentic celebration does not deny the evils of life, but places them in the context of the preciousness of life and, among people of faith, the reality of God’s care for those who feel pain and suffer injustice.

Massacre of infants is never accidental, then and now.  Protecting the “baby hearts” is our greatest adult responsibility toward the young, but how many turned a blind eye in Herod’s court? How many turn a blind eye today?

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the parent of process theology, described God as “the fellow sufferer who understands.”  In that same spirit, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died in a German concentration camp, asserted that only a suffering God can save us.  As Whitehead also states, God must be the source of our quest for beauty, but also the recipient and respondent to the tragedies of life.  Few have captured the ambiguity of the cosmic and human adventure as perceptibly than Whitehead: “At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy.  The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty.”  This Enduring Beauty emerges only within the interplay God’s experience and our own willingness to hear the cries of the vulnerable and respond with love and healing power individually and as members of the body politic.

Good theology joins vision (the way we understand God, ourselves, and the world); promise (our ability to experience the faith we affirm); and practices (faithful actions that open us to God’s presence and our calling in the world).

The Massacre of Infants awakens us to the vision of God with us, embracing the pain of the world and inspiring us to care for the vulnerable of all ages, especially the children of the world.  It promises that we will experience joy and fulfillment by opening our hearts and hands to the infants and children of the world.  It inspires us to certain practices of caring support for the infants and children of this good earth.  (For more on the theological and spiritual interplay of vision, promise, and practice, see Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room Books.)

How do we make the Massacre of Infants a holy day that transforms our lives and the world?  Among the possible practices, let us take time to listen for the child within us and the children around us.  We can practice playfulness, simplicity, and whole-hearted openness to the moment.

Second, let us move from listening to acting, from empathy to transformation, first, in our everyday relationships with children.  Let us listen to them, safely and lovingly reach out to them, and support their parents through finding ways for parents to receive respite time and adequate provisions to provide nourishment for their children.  We might choose to volunteer at school and become a big brother/big sister, scout leader, or religious education teacher.  We might insure that our own family’s children have sufficient emotional and interpersonal support. Third, our direct care for children leads to our commitment to political and community involvement.  In the spirit of the Dalai Lama, we need to create structures of welcome for each child.  It is not enough to care for the “unborn” as a focus of political involvement.  We must insure, regardless of the financial cost in terms of taxes, that every child has adequate nourishment, housing, education, and adult care.  This is a matter of individual generosity as well as sharing the burden of citizenship.

The Massacre of Infants calls us to the vocation of caring for all children, everywhere, bringing the light and love of Christmas to the spirits, minds, bodies, and relationships.




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