There's a part of the Christmas story we don't always tell the kids or teach in Sunday school: All the Christmas cheer was rudely and abruptly interrupted.
According to the birth narrative told in the Gospel of Matthew, right after the birth of Jesus, there was a slaughter in the land (Matthew: 2: 16-18). King Herod did what many powerful folks do when they are scared -- he started killing. According to Matthew, Herod began killing all the little boys under 2 years old throughout the empire, hoping to exterminate the baby wannabee king.
I know it's a real downer to come out of the most joyous season of the year -- with Christmas trees, hot chocolate and 450 billion dollars in retail spending -- and talk about kids getting killed. Sort of ruins the Christmas chi.
But for the early Christians, the slaughter that immediately followed the birth of Jesus was a detail of the Christmas story that they did not want to erase from their memory. Not only is it written into the Gospel itself, but the early Church marked it on the calendar as a holy day to remember annually -- the "Feast of the Holy Innocents." This horrible event has been carefully and permanently inscribed in the memory of the Church. By much of the church these children are considered the first martyrs. To this day, Christians around the world remember the "holy innocents" of the first century who did not survive, even as we celebrate the birth of Christ.
These holy innocents were the collateral damage of the empire -- they were a reminder of what Herods can do, especially when they are scared. They are a reminder that the birth of the Prince of Peace was riddled with suffering. Even as Christ was born, the world around him was in shambles. Not a lot has changed, 2,000 or so Christmases later.
Maybe it's worth pausing, even amid the celebration, to remember the suffering.
Perhaps it is worth pausing today to remember the Holy Innocents who continue to suffer in our world.
I have a little invitation for you:
Bring in the New Year with the children of Afghanistan.
On New Years Eve, youth in Afghanistan whom I have grown to deeply love and admire are hosting a little "Skype-a-thon," a 24-hour opportunity to meet them and listen to their voices, their hope, their pain.
The call will begin on Dec. 31, 2010 at 7:05 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) and will last until 7:05 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) on Jan. 1, 2011. From wherever in the world, you can:
I can't imagine a better way of celebrating the original Christmas event, or a better way of kicking off a new year, than by allowing our genuine and well-warranted joy to be interrupted by the suffering of our world, even for a moment.
Like the children who suffered deeply as Christ was born, let us remember those who suffer today. Let us remember the refugees born in the shadows of our world, undocumented, on the run, with "no room in the inn." Let us remember those who have grown sick of war and violence. Let us pray for our contemporary Herods and for the violence we allow and perpetuate. Let us hunger with those who hunger, for bread and for justice. May we pray that God would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And may we be moved to make 2011 a year of innocence and of peace.
Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker and activist. He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities, like this New Year's call, to build friendships for peace in a world of war.