Christmas was only three days ago. The day after Christmas we honored St. Stephen, the first martyr. Think about that: we honor a martyr- the first martyr- the day after Christmas. The day after that we honor St. John the Evangelist, whose authorship is attributed to one Gospel and four books in the New Testament. The day after that we honor the Holy Innocents, those who were murdered and slaughtered in the name of King Herod shortly after Jesus’ birth.
Is this how we enter the Christmas season, the Octave of Christmas? When only considering these facts, it seems almost inappropriate to have the feast day of a male infanticide so close to the feast day of the new born King. What is it about the liturgical calendar that places this morbid day so close to what should be a festive holiday? I think the Church in her maternal wisdom is teaching us something very important.
In a homily attributed to St. Augustine, he gives us something to reflect on when he says,
Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.
He encourages us to see this day contrary to the perception of our fallen nature; to see it not as a defeat, but as a triumph. How? Focus on the Holy Spirit, as Lindsay challenged us to do. As we contemplate the mystery of this feast, we must indeed ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In times where we feel persecuted and hated like St. Stephen, we ask for the Light of Faith to guide our way.
Could the Holy Innocents behold the glory of God like St. Stephen did during his martyrdom? What is it about these infants that strike us so deeply in our hearts? What is that movement? It may be that their martyrdom resonates with us. Think about it. We are called to be meek and humble of heart. We are called to accept all things as from God. We are called to bear in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in the world. How does such a glorious manifestation of the life of Jesus or rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit happen in the world? It is when we become obedient, even unto death. This glorious manifestation is not always pretty according to our standards. The manifestation of Christ’s glory came from and because of His crucifixion. Was that pretty or beautiful? (We call it Good Friday.)
Part of me wants to forget the quiet docility and patient endurance, even though Jesus himself says those who endure to the end will be saved. Part of me wants to yell out in condemnation to those who recreate infanticide in our country today. Part of me wants to cry out and justify the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (as if I have the ability to justify death).
Recognize that which resonates within you. What about this feast is good? Can we, the children of God and His Church learn from this feast day? Consider the humanity and honesty of King David. Consider the way he expresses his own hurt and anger. Ask yourself this: do his words resonate with me? In Psalm 77, writes a very vulnerable and honest prayer to God. When I first read it I was caught off guard by the sheer humanity of his words,
Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love for ever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?
And I say, “It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.
He doesn’t project his misfortune to those who afflict him nor does he blame or condemn those who persecute and hate him. He converses with God, directly. He addresses his Lord and Creator. He has some sense of order left within him, even after his exhausting struggle. This prayer of Psalm 77 resonated deeply within me because so often I had felt this but unable or afraid to articulate it. It is inspiring to see the humanity and spiritual life of David come through in verses that do not seem to echo what we are familiar with, “bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever.”
Yet, later in the psalm, David does just that. He remembers the works of the Lord and calls to mind His deeds. He muses at the holiness of God’s ways and the supreme authority God wields over creation. He attributes the redemption of Israel to God. The point is, David is honest, vulnerable, and returns to God. He does not close himself off to God but offers what he has: a weak and wounded spirit, an angry heart and a poor soul.
In the spirit of David and St. Stephen we too can come to behold the glory of God in our own lives. There is something more to be revealed about the infanticide of the Holy Innocents. At face value to the Jewish mothers of Bethlehem and the surrounding area, it looked like a meaningless massacre of children who may not have even spoken their first word. Can we believe God is present in this seemingly meaningless massacre? Can we practice that belief in our own lives?
St. Paul says that we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. In such a moment like this, we may be tempted to despair at the tragedy. When we call to mind and experience our own personal or familial turmoil, we may be tempted to forsake the docility of heart and instead respond with outrage or loud lamentation.
Challenge yourself to do as David did in psalm 77. Challenge yourself to do as St. Stephen did when he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In complete honesty and vulnerability we must seek the Lord, especially in our distress, for this is the very place in our soul which we have likely kept to ourselves and suffocated because we closed it off from God’s mercy and redeeming love. I hope and pray that this will lead us to exclaim with St. Augustine,
Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.