29 December 2018

How (not) to remember the Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem (commemorated on 29 December this year in the Orthodox Church) came up in a rather strange way this Nativity season in a conversation I had recently with my father, when we were discussing the daycare options for Albert, and I appealed to my parents’ experience in selecting daycare services for my sister and me. He told me about the first place I was (very briefly) sent to daycare, which was a preschool run by a fundamentalist Lutheran sect out of a certain neighbourhood church which is now in the possession of ‘non-denominational’ Baptists. During my fourth Advent season we were being taught the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Saint Matthew at this school, and it apparently traumatised me and gave me nightmares – because the Christmas story that the preschool teacher felt it appropriate to teach the toddlers in her care was precisely the one from St Matthew 2:16-18 about King Herod slaughtering the innocent toddler boys of Bethlehem.

Speaking for myself, I can’t really remember anything today about this particular incident, which Mom and Dad both tell me is a very good thing. But my parents recall it well enough, and were understandably livid about it at the time. They argued, somewhat fruitlessly, with the preschool teacher, and afterwards unceremoniously withdrew me from the programme and sent me to a different school. Children need – and my mother, rightly, was adamant on this point – to be fed with milk before they can be expected to digest meat. The birth of Christ is an occasion of joy and hope; in my parents’ view the most important message that little children need to be given at Christmas is that Christ is our hope and that He loves us: that even in the darkest season of the year, there is light.

I imagine my erstwhile preschool teacher, grounded as she was in a polity embracing the fundamentalist conviction of total human depravity, would have argued (assuming she had the presence of mind to do so) that even children need to be faced with the knowledge of that depravity in themselves. After all, what indeed is it that a child would need saving from? But, as that most sane of Englishmen Chesterton put it: ‘Færie tales do not tell children the dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Færie tales tell children the dragons can be killed.’ The theological merits of the Christmas story in its entirety have to be backgrounded by a conviction – not of the realities of human evil, which are evident enough even to a toddler even without hearing of evil tyrants who order children to be butchered by the thousands – but of the hope that such evils can be overcome by the eucatastrophe that has just occurred.

So what are we to do with St Matthew 2:16-18, then? All Scripture serves some purpose, be it exoteric or esoteric. And it is instructive, I think, to look to Orthodox iconography in this regard. We do not paper over or ignore or sugarcoat the massacre, which is graphically portrayed in some of the icons of the Church. But the incident is literally overshadowed by the loving embrace that Christ, ‘He who loves the innocent’, gives to all of the slain children. The main point is not to cow children into terror with the butchery of Herod, but instead to assure us that not a single one of those children is forgotten or forlorn in the grand scheme of things. Even if historically only thirty or forty infants were slain by Herod in his mania, the theologically-significant number of 14,000 handed down by the Church assures us that every child, every victim of injustice and violence is remembered and cared for in æternity. Earthly violence is always and everywhere overshadowed by eschatological hope.

Unfortunately, we live in a time where such violence, such real scandals to any faith in a just God, are now commonplace. Our own government, whose job it is to care for us, gives funding to the enemies of mankind and aids the Herods of the House of Saud in perpetuating a genocide of Yemeni Shî‘a children halfway around the world, even as it hypocritically points at the real or imagined humanitarian faults of other governments and critics. Our very culture is steeped in the idea that unborn infants are of no moral consequence, and can be discarded without compunction, to the tune of millions every year. Both those on the political right and on the political left delude themselves at their peril, if they believe God is indifferent to these things, or that they will go unaccounted in the final reckoning. He was there. He was one of them.

And that is the point of the story of the slaughtered children. Part of the scandal of the Incarnation is that Our Lord came into the world, not in power and glory, but in the most vulnerable and most marginal way imaginable. Though his parents eluded Herod, still in the Crucifixion at the hands of another Herod and his Roman taskmasters He shares – not in an empty sentimental way, but in truth – in the suffering of even the smallest, most wretched and most insignificant of these innocent ones. He embraces them, He comforts them, He heals their wounds and dries the tears of Rachel over them. And in the end, they will be the ones at Christ’s side when He calls the world to account. Be Thou entreated for the sake of the sufferings of Thy Saints which they endured for Thee, O Lord, and do Thou heal all our pains, O friend of man!

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