Posted by: Titus Presler | December 28, 2012

Holy Innocents – here, there, in all times and places

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”  With this quote from the prophet Jeremiah, Matthew sums up the horrifying story of Herod’s killing of male children under two years old at Bethlehem.  This is the story for today’s observance of the Holy Innocents.

The observance reminds us of the cost of the Incarnation.  Not all was sweetness and light.  God’s entering the human story in Christ Jesus entailed confrontation with the powers of sin and death.  The holocaust at Bethlehem encapsulates the lengths to which those powers have always been prepared to go as they spin destruction out from a heart of darkness.  Think the killing fields of Cambodia.  Think the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.  Think the depredations of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, and the crazed violence of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

In her brief poem, “Salus Mundi,” about the child in the manger, Mary Coleridge concluded: “The safety of the world was lying there, / And the world’s danger.”

I become ever more committed to the crucifix – not the Protestant empty cross – as the central visual depiction of what God undertook in the Incarnation.  How did God endanger evil?  By subjecting God’s self to evil as an innocent.  How does God relate to the anguish of the world and its outrages?  Regard the Crucified One.  That is not a safety that looks safe, but therein lies the paradox of the salvation – the saving, the safety – worked in Christ.

Today is the two-week mark of a particular killing of innocents, 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, an event that shocked people worldwide and might possibly turn the tide toward gun control in the USA – but only if we who are committed to gun control maintain the pressure on our members of Congress and the President.

Bethlehem cannot be said to be complicit in the catastrophe that descended on it.  The Newtown story is more complicated.  On Dec. 17 the New York Times reported on how over the past year efforts to limit an epidemic of gun shooting in Newtown were turned back by vociferous opponents in the town.  The reportage corrected the widespread impression that before Dec. 14 Newtown was a peaceful and innocent community into which gun violence appeared as an ugly and alien intruder.  It is clear now that the town was as soaked as any other in a culture of freewheeling gun use – and abuse.  Remarkable is the silence of other media about this underside of Newtown.

Beyond the spectacular, children suffer innocently in ways far short of death but in ways that can be a living death.  One evening in Peshawar I was traveling on the crowded road to Charsadda, a small city north of Peshawar.  Mine and the other cars in the dusk at rush hour were barely moving, so choked was the road with pedestrians, ox carts, bicycles, 3-wheel scooters and motorcycles as well as cars.

I was startled to see a small child somewhere between 18 and 24 months old sitting on a tiny piece of blanket in the roadway – well, on the opposite side of the roadway, but enough in the roadway so that bikes and such were passing behind her as well as in front of her.  She had a bandage on her head and her right arm was in a sling.  She was just sitting there in the dirt with the pandemonium – and danger – of traffic all around her.

We were stopped, so I observed her for some time, concerned for her safety, horrified at her situation.  I concluded that she had been placed there deliberately in order to attract coins of compassion.  But no one was leaving anything for her.

Presently another child, also a girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, came and squatted beside her.  The newcomer began to hit the small child casually, as though it were part of their routine.  Maybe because no coins were on the blanket? – hard to know.  The small child began to cry, upon which the older child remonstrated further with her.  Here was insult added to injury, actually injury added to injury, and this from an intimate.

After a little while a woman who appeared to be the mother of both arrived with yet another daughter in tow, this one about 12 years old.  Now the four of them squatted together in conversation in the road.  The mother seemed to rebuke the sister who had been hitting the youngest.  Then they seemed to get happier in mutual talk.

Here was a mother with her three daughters, but they seemed a sisterhood united against a hostile world, conspiring to survive amid adversity.  I tried to imagine where they would retire for the night.  What hovel?  In what conditions?  Where  did their daily bread come from?

Then the traffic moved on, carrying me with it.  I had only observed, because my circumstance seemed – at least seemed – to limit me to observation.  I was carried forward.  I regretted.  I wondered.

Their danger was clear.  Where was their safety?  Unclear.  Except that the child at Bethlehem shared the danger of the child in the street.  And the vulnerability.  The Christ child survived.  But could just as well not have.  The vulnerability of God was ultimate.  And the solidarity – with the Innocents of Bethlehem, with the innocents of Newtown, with the innocent in the Peshawar street – that was ultimate too.

As we behold the child in the manger – and countless other children too – we behold as well the Crucified One.

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