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, Episcopalian and other Protestant traditions, this tragic moment in the biblical story is recalled on December 28; the Eastern 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. This day challenges us to affirm the child in us and work for structures of justice for all children.
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 institutionally-sponsored infanticide or the willful robbery of a child’s innocence. The bible and everyday political life is replete with such stories. 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. Remember the intentional separation of young children from their parents on the USA borderlands and the recent deaths of two elementary school children held in detention camps.
Celebration is essential to a good life, but authentic 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. It is often the result of the intentionality or failure to consider the side effects of decisions made by governmental and private institutions. Protecting the “baby hearts” is our greatest adult responsibility toward the young, but how many turned a blind eye in Herod’s court? While I believe we should recognize the moral status of fetuses, how many turn a blind eye today, prizing fetuses in utero and neglecting them once they are born? While there are few innocent bystanders in this world, it is still important that we make a commitment to support children’s health, relational, and economic well-being and minimize the suffering of children as much as possible?
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. It also reminds us that political involvement can be the source of healing as well as suffering, and that we cannot claim to be innocent bystanders but must respond as citizens when our own government is complicit in evil.
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 and support for each child, not just citizens but undocumented children, the children of asylum seekers, and children throughout the world.. 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 responsible 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.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, theologian, and author of over 50 books, including “Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “Become Fire: Spiritual Practices for Interspiritual Adventurers,” “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom,” and the “Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh.”