“Better to be Herod’s pigs”: The Feast Of The Slaughter Of The Infants

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ – Matthew 2:16-18

The Slaughter Of The Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens

The Slaughter Of The Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens

Mortar rounds slammed into a school Wednesday in a rebel-held suburb east of Damascus, killing at least 13 children whose limp, bloodied bodies were later laid out on the floor of a crowded field hospital awaiting burial, activists said. . . .

Three mortar shells struck the Haya School in Qaboun before noon, said a local activist who uses the name Abu Akram al-Shami. Another activist based near Damascus, Amar al-Hassan, also reported the incident, as did Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights.

Abdurrahman said 13 children were killed, but the number likely would rise. A local activist collective, the Qaboun Media Office, put the death toll at 17 children. Conflicting casualty figures are common after such incidents. – Diaa Hadid, “Mortar Fire On Syria School Kills 13 Children,” news.yahoo.com, November 14, 2014

Of all the Feast Days on the Church Calendar, this is by far the most difficult.  Particularly for contemporary sensibilities, in which we, following Rousseau and his American counterparts like John Dewey and Benjamin Spock, insist on the innocence of children compared to the corrupt and compromised moral life of adults.  That a national leader would order the killing of children within his own lands is horrible enough; that he would do so in order to thwart the purposes of God is blasphemy of the highest order.

I must ask.  Do we really believe that children are innocent?  In fact, most of us with experience with children understand them to be no less cunning, no less willing to lie, to cheat, to be mean-spirited than any adult.  Children and youth commit horrible crimes all the time, not least of them mass murder

Columbine High School Picture, Class of 1999

Columbine High School Picture, Class of 1999

In the upper left-hand corner of this photo, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are miming aiming guns at the camera.  What should be a typical high school celebration of class solidarity, adolescent fun, and friends sharing a moment they will need to jog their memories in 20 years, becomes a chilling prophetic image of the mass death to come.

And it isn’t just kids killing kids.

Families Gather At Sandy Hook Elementary School To Mourn And Pray And Wonder Why

Families Gather At Sandy Hook Elementary School To Mourn And Pray And Wonder Why

Two years ago, a young man entered an elementary school in Connecticut.  Armed to the the teeth, he entered a first grade class room and opened fire.  Like most everyone else that day, as first reports came in, I wanted so much for the worst not to be.  The reality, however, was even more horrible than even I could imagine.  Twenty-six dead, twenty of them children.  I am still haunted by the thought that, rather than spend the week before Christmas doing that last minute shopping, wrapping presents, and dealing with children impatient for Christmas to come, twenty families were spending the week before Christmas burying their dead children.  There were, of course, the police, the crime scene investigators, and the EMTs who had to enter those class rooms, see the slaughter in its raw, naked horror, and will live the rest of their lives with the images of those children’s broken bodies burned in to their memories.

I could go on, but I guess my question is this: How different are we from Herod?  I don’t mean our officials order the deaths of children for the sake of their own power.  We do, however, tolerate an immense amount of violence in our society, including violence against children.  It was easy enough to begin such a discussion with the recent mortar attack on a Syrian school.  After all, the war in the Levant among Syria, Iraq, and ISIL is something far away, involving people very different from us.  I can well remember when I was small my mother telling me that World War II proved the Japanese just didn’t hold life sacred the way we in the west did.  That such a sentence is disproved by the reality of the mass grave that was Eastern Europe by the end of the war, as well as the radioactive clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t deter her in the least.  It did, however, force me to wonder whether we in the West have ever held human life sacred.

We are quite willing to put up with the deaths of children as long as it doesn’t interfere with our own “right” to own weapons.  We are quite willing to mourn the deaths of children in Syria because, well, they’re deaths in Syria, not here, and those folks are Muslims, while we in the west hold human life sacred.  We are willing to accept a well thought-out mass-murder at a high school, one that was supposed to include the use of pipe bombs to kill police as well as those trying to flee the school, because we reduce Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to persons “sick” with “mental illness”, without giving a thought to the reality that this is precisely why such a massacre was preventable.

We sit and hang our heads, crying out like those in Ramah each time yet another child dies senselessly.  We shake our heads, insisting “there is nothing we can do to prevent it” when yet another child or adult enters a school and opens fire.  Most of all, we blame that strange religion, Islam, for those dead school children, unable to see past the beam in our own eye, a beam thrown there by all the gunfire we accept as part of American life.

Jesus was born in to a world filled with sin.  We are so quick, almost too quick, to reduce “sin” to individual acts of moral turpitude, whether sexual or otherwise.  Sin, however, is so much more than that, so much more horrible.  The deaths ordered by Herod.  The deaths that resulted from mortar fire.  The deaths in our country that we tolerate, making excuse after excuse even as the bodies pile up and more and more parents have to wonder, “Why?”  The sin of Herod, the Feast of the Slaughter of the Infants, is a reminder that this world God loves, this world into which the baby Jesus was born in order to save – this is a world filled with violence, with pain and suffering, with death on a massive scale.  Unless we look at that reality without flinching; unless we realize we are as much a part of this cycle of violence, this round of pain and death, that our silence and our excuses and our refusal to hold ourselves responsible for all of it will only bring more death, more mourning, then our remembrance of those dead children in Bethlehem means nothing.

The Church commemorates this particular event not because of its historicity (something The Catholic Encyclopedia online tries desperately to fix), nor to “celebrate the first martyrs”.  The Church commemorates this horror because it reminds us that it isn’t some isolated event in some barbaric time.  It is, rather, just another round of mass death.  It is up to us in the churches to work so that, one day, no more cries rise from the Ramahs of this world; that no more Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds have their illnesses ignored and excused; so that no more parents have to bury their small children just days before Christmas.  The Feast of the Slaughter of the Infants is there to remind us just how much work we have to do.



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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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