The liturgical calendar still says that it is Advent, and yet I find myself thinking about one of the most disturbing feast days of the year, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Every year on December 28th, the Church marks that most terrible of stories in the cycle of Christmas: the story of Herod slaughtering every male child under the age of two, in hopes of killing Jesus, whom he understands only as competition for his throne and his power.
As I have watched a bit of the news coverage of the horrible events that took place yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut, I find the phrase “the slaughter of innocents” coming to mind and I keep thinking of this terrible feast. Of course, there are never any words that can make sense of senseless violence; there are no words that can make the pain or the horror go away. And yet, I thought that I might find (and share) something in the Church’s celebration of the Holy Innocents that might provide a word for those who wish that the Church had something to say in the midst of a tragedy like this. For good or for ill, the message that emerges is not “here are the answers; here is how to think about these things in the light of faith; here is a comforting word.” Rather, the message is that God and the Church know tragedy and pain, know its complexity, and know that there are no easy answers, just the struggle to go on in the midst of tragedy and to trust that there is a light that darkness cannot overcome.
The lectionary readings for the Feast of the Holy Innocents bring together four basic points and holds them in tension, and, after reflecting on these readings a bit, it seems to me that these are four things that people are dealing with in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and so I offer them here for those who might find any or all of them helpful.
First, there is the unmistakable lament for the senseless loss of innocent life, something that I imagine everyone who hears the news from Connecticut, like everyone who heard the news from Bethlehem, shares:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
Second, there is the good news that the infant Jesus has escaped the violence, and survives. The responsorial psalm antiphon is “Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.” What a strange gift to hold your own child safe in your arms as you know other parents have lost their sons and daughters. I saw a couple interviewed on CNN the morning after the shooting, and they described the joy and relief that washed over them as they, after spending a couple hours not knowing if their children were safe, were finally reunited with their children.
Broken was the snare,
and we were freed.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
I imagine that Mary and Joseph, relatively safe somewhere along the road to Egypt, might have wondered why the God who warned them in a dream did not warn those other parents. Did Mary hold Jesus a bit tighter? Did she thank God for sparing him? Did she feel the guilt of a survivor, knowing that “there but by the grace of God”? The lamentation of the loss is real, but so is the great relief that so many were spared, and that this beloved child of ours is spared.
Third, the readings invite us to see the evil action theologically, as sin. The first reading (1 Jn 1:5-2:2) begins with the proclamation: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” but continues to point out that all of us sin, and we must be honest about that, repent, trust in God to forgive us and cleanse us, and then we can walk in the light. It concludes with this:
My children, I am writing this to you
so that you may not commit sin.
But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
It is jarring to hear these words (for me at least) in the midst of a tragedy. But a mere three days after Christmas, these words ring out in churches all over the world, reminding Christians that the baby in the manger will die anyway, for Herod’s sins, for Adam Lanza’s, for yours, and for mine. For those of the whole world.
I suppose that we have two temptations when we look at someone like Herod or Adam Lanza. I think that we tend either to vilify them (here is a person who has nothing but dark, evil motives) or to excuse them (well, given the pain in his own past, or his mental health, or whatever, it was understandable that something like this would happen). Sin is actually a rich resource to name both of these impulses. Sin is about our free choices of evil over good, but sin is also a way of naming our brokenness. Original sin names the fact that we are all born broken. And that brokenness affects not just each individual among us, but it impacts all of our collective enterprises, too. There is something not quite whole about all of our social enterprises together: our families, our communities, our very society bears the traces of this brokenness.
I have no idea why Adam Lanza did what he did yesterday. Even the explanations, if and when they come, won’t really answer the question. But sin helps me place it in reference to God. It was apart from God’s plan. It was contrary to God’s purposes. And Christ was born to defeat it.
I’m honestly a little astounded that this first reading shows up on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It really seems to invite Christians to see Herod as a sinner, to remember that we too are sinners adrift in a sea of brokenness in need of God’s grace, and to reassure us that Christ is the Advocate for us all.
Fourth, and surely most importantly, is the great good news of our incarnate God. In the first reading on the feast of the Holy Innocents, we get that important reminder that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” And that is certainly meant to echo the reading that is proclaimed on Christmas Day:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5).
In the wake of tragedies like this, with the senseless loss of innocent life, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the loss, by the death, by the destruction. It is easy to feel that the darkness wins. Although we don’t know how, although it might not even feel true in the midst of the tragedy, the good news is that Christ is our light, a light that shines in the most penetrating darkness, a light that has not been—indeed cannot be—overcome by the darkness.
In this Advent season, while we await the Savior who has already saved us, the darkness of winter seems darker still in the midst of this tragedy. We prepare for Christ’s coming in the way that Christians always have, by trying to be people who are more and more marked by faith, hope, and love. And as the darkness threatens to overwhelm, we hold onto the knowledge that in the God who became flesh to save us—somehow already, and somehow not yet—even the slaughter of innocents is redeemed.