Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

This time of year we often hear that "Christmas is for children." Adults smile indulgently at children's unbridled excitement; treacly song lyrics speak wistfully of "Toyland, beautiful girl and boy land," where "once you've passed its borders you can never return again."

I recently read a sermon by Paul Neuchterlein (see The Text This Week's commentaries for December 28th for the link) in which he points out that Christmas is for all children, not just middle-class American children or the dimpled tots of our picture-perfect fantasy holidays.

Christmas -- the real Christmas, the inbreaking of God's saving power in the person of Jesus Christ -- is also for children who live in the shadow of death -- death by the hand of the mad or malicious; death by the culmination of many banal evils inflicted by a chain of ignorant and/or callous adults; death by natural disaster; death by poverty, by disease, by neglect.

It's as true now as it was 2,000 years ago: In most times and places, children have been the most vulnerable citizens of our planet. They're often the last to be fed; the first to be exploited or abused. Not too long ago I read an article by a biblical scholar who thinks that the Slaughter of the Innocents is a mythical event because there appears to be no independent verification of its occurrence in the historical record. My reaction -- as a forty-something whose lifespan has coincided with the atrocities of Vietnam; the days of Cambodian killing fields; genocidal slaughter in Uganda, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in the Sudan and many other places, and who has over the years seen and heard countless reports of child abuse, neglect and exploitation -- is that in a world where children are expendable and where violence in service to self-interest is the norm, perhaps this event wasn't recorded because it wasn't particularly remarkable...then or now.

This is the world where God met us in the person of Jesus -- a helpless child, one of countless helpless children; soon to be a refugee child, like many small refugees. Because the God we meet in the Gospels refuses to fight the powers of evil on their own terms -- terms of power-over and payback. God's power is made perfect in weakness: the weakness of a baby; the weakness of an executed prisoner.

We often feel helpless in the face of evil; it seems too big, too overwhelming, too persistent. But the Christ we follow calls us into battle against the darkness by calling us into what the rest of the world sees as weakness -- the kind of weakness that allows our hearts to be broken; that helps our closed minds give way to new vision and understanding; that opens our clenched, grasping fists; that lets us be pulled out of our safe, dark fortresses of self-absorption and self-interest.

Christmas is for children -- for all children, everywhere. It's for all the children of Eve, of every age and place. What's the mission of the Body of Christ -- which is to say, all of us? "Let them know it's Christmastime."

Starving Somalian child; a 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Kevin Carter


JWD said...

Thank you for this excellent, moving entry.

Nicodemia said...

I echo jwd's thanks. So many children, so many poor, oppressed, abused. My hearts weeps for them.

Kathryn said...

And so the music of the Coventy Carol speaks through the centuries into all that pain...
Thank you for posting.
It's reminded me of a poem I'll put on my blog,too.

Michael said...

I read yesterday that it was a medieval custom (where?) to spank children on the Feast of the Holy Innocents to remind them of the suffering of the babes. One does wonder why anyone would think children need to be reminded of suffering. It seems we adults could use a kick in the rear end to remind us of the suffering of the innocents today as well as then.

LutheranChik said...

Last night as I was trying to find this photo (I'd seen it at an exhibition of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs; when you see it in a gallery, large and up close, it's even more powerful), I found out something very chilling: The individual who took this picture walked away from the child; didn't attempt to help him or her. This fact came back to haunt him later, and he eventually committed suicide. I didn't want to get into that in the post proper, but I think it's an illustration of how our violence and lack of love toward others eventually hurts us as well...and how, deep down, most of us know we're in trouble; that we're not getting it right but can't get to "rightness" by our own power. Right now I'm thinking of John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God," and how that giving up of our resistance, making ourselves vulnerable to God, saves us from ourselves and what we do (or don't do).

Pink Shoes said...

This year at Christmas I have a beautiful, dimpled, 7-month old child. I've always been a sensitive soul, but my experience in raising my child so far has heightened my outrage at the inequalities and violence and and and that takes place among and toward the children.
The photo that you posted breaks my heart. Thank you for your post. Thoughtful, as always.

Bad Alice said...

This was a powerful post. The photo, it hurts.

Mary Beth said...

Thank you for this amazing post & insight into the photo, too.

I never understand how photojournalists can record the things they do; it's their job, but why aren't they throwing the camera aside and rushing forward to help or stop or something!? Obviously, there's a personal cost to it.