HOLY INFANT, HOLY INNOCENTS: A MEDITATION ON A MASSACRE
BY: MICHELLE B.
(This document was released publicly, but I am unsure whether the author would want her name used.)
You have undoubtedly heard many times the old Christian teaching that Advent is a season of waiting. We wait in hope and joy for the birth of Jesus, Our Lord, Savior and King. His birth is the dawn of EMMANUEL, God With Us.
From our own childhoods, we have learned to treasure this precious Infant. There are abundant outpourings of songs, theater and religious readings about this Wonderful Child, which any may find and use to prepare to celebrate His birthday.
But a scant three days after Christmas, on December 28th, there is another Feast Day, much less observed today--The Feast of the Holy Innocents.
An ancient feastday of the Christian Church, with liturgical materials provided by the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts of our own Church, its roots are found in only one Gospel, Matthew 2: 13-23. It commemorates the massacre of all male children less than two years of age in the town of Bethlehem in the period just after Jesus' birth. To the Church, it has represented a feastday to honor "all innocent victims", in all times, and all places. This year, I ask you to consider it as THE Feast of the Abused Child for Christian people everywhere.
Let us look more closely at this tragic event in human history. Herod, the last Hashmona'ean ruler, descendant of Mattathias, the leader whose courage against forced idolatry lights up the Books of the Maccabees, and led to the Jewish celebration of Chanukah (parallel in time to Christmas), was a frightened man. Like all bullies, there slept within his Unconscious both the "King Baby", the self-fantasied omnipotent child who wanted ALL power and ALL glory, and the terrified toddler who knew he was not all-powerful. He was terrified by the Magis' story, and feared being supplanted by the infant King of whom they had spoken. Refusing to risk the loss of his temporal power, he ordered all the male infants of less than two years in that region destroyed.
Josephus recorded the massacre as history, and contemporary archeology in the region in Israel is beginning to support this event as fact. It happened. What does it mean for us?
Rather than attempting to tell you, I would like to invite you into a meditation, by which you may hear what the Spirit is saying to you.
Let me suggest that you sit down, and make yourself comfortable. I recommend that you sit in a chair, one with a reasonably straight back, and allow your feet to rest flat on the floor. (Reclining may only lead you to fall asleep.)
Now read, and visualize. Read and feel. Whether you are man or woman, give yourself time to become all the actors in the drama, the women, the men, even the murdered babies, their siblings and their kin, the soldiers, and even Herod the King. Feel free, also, to stop where you need to stop, perhaps to return to this at another time, with new thoughts. You may want to jot down some of what you discover, as you proceed or at the end of your meditation. Now I invite you to enter into the Mystery of God's action in this place and this time, to let the Spirit talk with you today.
I walk toward my home in the city of Bethlehem. The day is cool, the sunlight thin. I have been out to the market to buy fresh food for the evening meal, or to bring water from the central well for my family, including our four children.
Now I have left the market. I walk outward toward home. I think of the synagogue, where we pray to the Lord of the Worlds. We may not be as fancy, but we know the Psalms: "For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb". We know them--and we believe.
Soon I hear my six year old, Samuel. He's on the roof of our house, watching for me. Usually he runs to help me with whatever I carry, and begs a sweet if I've bought any. Not today. Now I can hear Samuel, with Jonathan, my four year old, shouting on the rooftop. They are screaming, and waving desperately at me. I see Samuel pointing outward toward the edge of the city. I am running. Into the house. Up the stairs.
"Soldiers. Soldiers," I hear Samuel cry. They point, Samuel and Jonathan together. Now I can see. A thin line of King Herod's troops has formed around the city. What danger could be out there from which they are protecting us? I have heard nothing about such a thing. Nothing in the market place. Nothing at the well, where gossip is thick, and many of us are kin.
"Where are Sarah and Eli?" I ask about my eight year old and her year old baby brother. My little ones tell me they've gone across the street to Jerah's house to play. I run down the stairs and hasten to call them home.
"Sarah? Eli?" Sarah comes out, holding Eli on her hip.
"I was just playing, Avi, really. We're okay," Sarah explains. I smile at her use of the childish My Father, and nod to reassure her.
"There's some problem, and soldiers are about. Come on home. Now." She scurries across the street. She's a good obedient child. I stick my head into Jerah's house. He's my cousin. I warn him about there being soldiers afoot, and hurry to my own home.
All the family are there. Cooking the supper is begun. No one feels like eating. I climb up on the roof again, and I cannot believe what I see. Herod's troops are going from house to house. Not a one is missed. When they come out, their swords are bloody.
I run down the ladder, and tell the others. Why is this happening? What have we done? What can we do? How can we protect the children?
"The children!" their grandparents shriek. "The children!"
Before we can move, Yossi, a boy from a block further out runs in.
"They're killing the boy babies. The boy babies!" he shouts, panicked. We hurry to dress Eli in Sarah's outgrown clothes. The soldiers are only a few blocks away. What else can we do?
Now we can hear screams. Father orders everyone to the roof. Grandpa and Grandma refuse to go. I cannot argue them out of their decision. I climb up with my family, my infant son clutched in my arms.
Now I see what I would never have believed. In the block back of us, I see infants lying on the cobblestones with matted, bloodstreaked hair. Others hang half out of windows, limbs distorted, broken, some with blood streaming from nose or eyes or ears.
"What does this mean? Why did they die? Where is God?"
I hear my parents yelling downstairs. A scream. The next sounds are those of overturned tables and chairs. Footsteps up to the roof.
"Your sons!" demands a soldier, sworn drawn and blooded.
"We have no infant boys here," the mother explains.
"This is a girl," Sarah tries to say.
The soldier moves toward her. More fill the roof space behind him. He grabs the infant and pulls down his clothes. The lie is exposed. The soldier raises his sword.
SLASH! The infant is speared, its "MA" heard, its "MAMA" never heard. Samuel tries to kick the soldier away. A huge gash is made across his chest. He falls. The soldiers leave.
I know this is happening, house after house, block after block. Why did it start? Where will it end?
I descend the ladder first. Grandma and Grandpa are lying in pools of blood in our common room. With them is Jerah. He must have run across the street to help, having no young children of his own. Death has been his reward, and theirs.
We stand in the middle of carnage. We are so shocked, we cannot even cry.
Why invite you to participate in this awful drama? Why were the people of Bethlehem subjected to it? What do you think it led the people of Bethlehem to ask, to decide, about God? Where did it lead you, today?
Let me suggest some of my thoughts. Christmas spotlights Birth and Life. It shows us how, although it takes nine months, and chapters and chapters of Gospel, to create, nurture and extol Life, Evil and Death can be done in minutes. In Jesus' and his parents' escape, it shows us how close Life came to not being, at all.
We can easily see how precious was the human life of Jesus. Can we also see and feel how precious were those innocent lives as well? Although it is proper to have special reverence for the Holy Infancy of Jesus, I ask you to consider: Is not every infancy an holy infancy, and every infant a holy infant? Certainly each is an innocent infant, and shares in that innocence with Jesus. Who knows what humanity lost, what lives these lost babies might have led, how they might have helped their people find the Lord, what glory they might have given to God, how they might have served or from what they might have saved their people, and others?
The massacre spotlights for us the human helplessness into which Jesus was willing to be born. He came to us as truly dependent upon the 'foresight, caring and action of his human parents as any newborn does. The Lord of the Worlds became helpless for us. The massacre shows us how helpless he was, and against what forces.
Earlier, I spoke of this as The Feast of the Abused Child. Most newspapers would have you believe that abuse is usually the work of strangers, outsiders, "THEY" and "THEM". The Hebrews too, looked to Rome for perpetration of the worst offenses against them. But we know that most abuse happens in the home, done by family members, by those the child trusts. So here, too, The Perpetrator was none other than Herod, the King and Father of his nation, a Hebrew, and "one of the family". Allied to Rome but not a Rome, he ordered this heinous deed not under orders from Rome, but under his own evil will. Like all acts of abuse, the massacre was an act of force, arising from feared or anticipated helplessness seeking the power to hold the terror off. As in all abuse, the victims were innocent.
What effect might all this have had on Christianity? Many hypotheses are possible. Here are some. You may have many more.
The massacre wiped out an entire generation of boys in this one place. Just as the Baby Boom has created a lump throughout our society, this destruction of infants created a vacuum. For as long as the people survived, there would be no males living who might have been born in those years. The people could never forget.
Some of the survivors might have turned away from God. These would have weakened Israel's unity, perhaps contributing to its fall 70 years later.
Some might have given new ear to the Zealots. Feeling powerless in their inability to protect their children or relatives from the sword, they might have heard and believed that Herod was a pawn of Home, a despot who must be destroyed. The Zealots' ranks may have filled, contributing to the severity of combat against Rome later, and the refusal to surrender whose legacy is Masada.
Did these people remember, when Jesus came to preach in the area, that He too had been born at Bethlehem, but He had survived? "My child died, but he lived." Perhaps some thought: "It's because of Him that my child died." Could this be why some yelled: "Give us Barabas"? Barabas, the terrorist, becomes a hero to a desperate people who have lost their children and their hope. For these people, the political had become the personal. Surely, we can understand.
Were there those who may have secretly thought Jesus was God--and despised him for "allowing" their infants to die? After World War II, some Jews in Israel dared to put God on trial for complicity as a "silent partner" in the Holocaust. They found him guilty! Did they judge Jesus the same?
Where do you find God in this? People undoubtedly asked: "What have we done?" As we have most recently seen with the problem of AIDS, people's first thought is often that sickness or death is a punishment for sin. I deny that. For whose punishment could the God Whom Jesus tenderly called "Abba", Jesus Himself who had been helpless, even as we, or the Holy Spirit have slain innocent infants? For the sins of their parents? This is not the God of Love; therefore, I cannot believe it.
Did God call down this fate at all? Did He allow it? Why? To teach these people a lesson? Could it be that Jesus, learning of the massacre sometime after his return to the Holy Land, had "survivor guilt" and developed from this his compassion and concern for little children, and his rage at those who put "stumbling blocks" before them? Was the Lord learning about the human condition? I think so, but I don't think that's why the infants died.
I suggest that the infants died because of human fear and human power lust and human sin--Herod's most specifically, in this case, and those of his soldiers, as well.
Where was God? I believe He was in those children, as I believe He is in every child, and every human being who has not shut him out--and perhaps even in those, though they know Him not. He is the God who was slain, and He was slain long before Calvary.
In some Mystery that I cannot explain, but dare to hope in and affirm, I believe that He was and is and will be GOD WITH US. I believe that He was slain with each child at Bethlehem. Furthermore, because He lives today, I believe He is battered with each child who is battered. When someone incests a child, Jesus is incested. When someone rapes a man or a woman, Jesus too is raped. Why does He allow this? My Lord is One of Infinite Power, but my Lord has boundaries. He has given us free will. He does not step over the line. That is the crime of the abuser. He is not one of those.
So when Christmas Eve comes, and we celebrate that the Baby Jesus is born, let us thank God for all the loving, nurturing homes, and churches, schools and hospitals, for anyplace where life is awaited with joy, cared for and cared about.
Then let us remember those not so blessed. Let us learn. Let us become informed about them. Then let us become their community of caring. So we shall truly celebrate the Holy Infant, as He dwells in every child, and in every one of us as well. So we shall heal the world.