This little story is one we tend to avoid at this time of year. After all, we’re making happy noises at the baby or sleeping off the feast, or even wrestling with our new toys. Bringing up murdered children at a time like this seems so… rude. And then there’s the obvious hook into government power justifying atrocity by claiming ‘defense of the nation’ and do we really want to get stuck in that morass?
Note that it is entirely appropriate and right to have this story as an occasion to reflect on the serious question of government power and its misuse, particularly in situations where evil is called good. The challenge we face in doing so is that politics are personal and we need to be clear about how much of our position on how the text connects to the modern day is driven by biblical scholarship and how much comes from our personal position on the person in question.
That said, there’s so much involved in this story from agency to theodicy and the Will of God that whole volumes could, and should be written about it. This is however a blog, not a global publishing empire so I’m going to focus on the atrocity and the bereaved.
Although Herod may well have justified this as a practical defense of the nation against a destabilizing force, depriving ill-wishers of a rallying flag (this “King of the Jews”) who would justify their plunging the nation into war, the fact is he ordered the death of children. And then his troops carried out those orders. No counselors are recorded as speaking up against this, the better angels of Herod’s nature did not prevail agains the order, and well.. the troops “just followed orders” to the point of hacking up toddlers.
At no time did anyone in power intervene and nothing was brought forth to stop this evil, it just happened. One of those ‘stop the world, I want to get off’ horrors happened, just as it does in our world again, and again, and again. People are shocked, and horrified, and then find a way to go on just the same. We grieve, we rage, we do something as we can, and then we survive (somehow).
Folks are left with a tender spot that will hurt from time to time but with the exception of occasional anniversaries, we go on. The church certainly understands this need for the survivors to keep living, but she also remembers that grief is not a ‘one and done’ proposition. We grieve, we survive, but we always have that gap where our loved one should have been.
The church, in her wisdom, commemorates these children on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December). On one hand, it serves no practical purpose. All the people involved and all those who grieved over it afterwards are long dead. Nothing in the commemoration will “fix” their deaths and declaring them martyrs doesn’t make their death “OK.” For that matter, loads of preaching on this day will either skate past the children or (even worse in my opinion) try to explain this as ‘part of the plan’ or ‘God’s will.’
In fact, if someone tells you “God just wanted another flower in his garden” you have my permission to punch them, in the face, as hard as you can, because NO God doesn’t kill babies because they’re pretty or because God is some sort of bug collector looking to “add to my collection” or any other asinine reason.
So if the commemoration isn’t to ‘fix’ something, or lift up a noble life or death, what is it for? It’s to remember horror, grieve for loss, and to say that ‘no this is not right.’ It is, as one book put it “the refusal to cease suffering” in the face of Mandatory Happiness. We take the time as a church to sit down in the dust with the parents of these dead children and say ‘this is not right’ and ‘we won’t go away.’
Sometimes, this sort of stubbornness “pays off” as it did for Leymah Gbowee in Liberia where her gathering of women opposed to the Liberian wars eventually drove Charles Taylor from power. Sometimes it doesn’t, but “paying off,” or “gaining success” has never really been a theologically interesting goal in a faith which claims that the crucifixion of a certain Jesus was actually the triumph of God over evil.
Think about that for a minute. Jesus came into the world, was crucified, died, was buried, and then a resurrection. None of this, not even the resurrection, made the local papers. No one won a prize for this, or got a triumphal parade. He dies, his disciples claim resurrection and then… well that’s it.
Now we do believe in resurrection and that resurrection transforms life and gives power but it isn’t the plot line of a Hollywood Epic Adventure and it doesn’t make those children any less dead. For that matter, the resurrection doesn’t make our trauma any less real either. Those beaten kids are still beaten, that abused spouse is still abused, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean we all get a ticket to ‘happy happy land’ where nothing bad can happen because we’re “too blessed to be depressed.”
Nope, not at all. But the resurrection does change something. This is because for Jesus to rise from the dead, he had to die. This is the real, authentic death thingie, not some sleight of hand bit of flummery. He had to die in order to “descend into hell” for a little jailbreak caper he had in mind. And while the descent is theologically significant as he broke the bars of hell and triumphed over the grave, his death should not be skipped past too quickly.
Jesus died, the real authentic condition. He walked all the way down the road those children did, dying a nonsensical death at the hands of the governing authorities. He died an obscure death that would have had no meaning except that he is the Son of God who was raised up from death.
This means that while those soldiers of Herod were killing those particular children in Bethlehem, Jesus was holding those kids in their fear and agony. He was on the cross with them, dying for the sins of the whole world. Jesus was with the screaming parents (though they could not hear him) suffering with them on their cross of agony. And Jesus was shouting in those soldiers’ faces, saying “I didn’t make you to become this kind of person!” He was wrestling with the consciences of the atrocity-mongers, banging on the moral fibre of Herod’s counselors, and screaming at Herod to “stop this evil and grow into the person God made you to be!”
But mostly, Jesus was on the cross with those children. Not stopping the suffering, but sharing it. He was grieving with the parents and, because grief doesn’t just ‘end’ because it’s inconvenient, he kept grieving with them.
In fact, part of why the church commemorates those innocent lives is because the death of a child is not like the death of their parents. It’s a wound that never really closes, a long, seeping injury that colors life, even resurrected life.
So the church makes sure to sit down in the ashes with these grieving parents, not to fix it or make it go away, but to be in grief at the absolutely vile, evil, and horrible thing that has happened and to be ‘not OK’ with these people who are ‘not OK’ and, ironically perhaps, to be OK doing that because the Jesus who holds us, holds them, and held their loved ones every step on the walk into death.
And because he walked into death himself, and walked through it in the power of God, Jesus walks through death with these Holy Innocents. Thank God for mercy even in the hardest and most awful things.