Exactly two weeks, to the day, after the tragic slaying of twenty schoolchildren and the six adults who sought to protect them, several Christian communities (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans) celebrate the annual "Feast of the Holy Innocents," a memorial which appears on the liturgical calendar each year on December 28. This feast is also celebrated by the Syrian Christian communities (Syriac Orthodox, Syro-Malankara Catholics, Maronites, and Syro-Malabar Catholics) on the December 27, while the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates this day on December 29.
The feast day is a solemn and challenging liturgical remembrance that calls to mind the command of King Herod of Judea who, as the tradition has it, was infuriated that the magi from the East did not return to him after visiting the infant Jesus to tell him the newborn's location, and fearing his power was threatened by the birth of this child, "ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under" (Matt 2:16).
The day is celebrated as a remembrance of martyrs, and is sometimes viewed as the commemoration of the "first martyrs" for these little babies and toddlers lost their lives, some would say, "for Christ." Yet, this is not at all a satisfactory explanation.
The senseless murder of children can never be justified, even in an attempt simply to make sense of such a tragedy. This is one of the reasons why this annual memorial is so difficult and challenging, made more incomprehensible in light of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, CT two weeks earlier.
My own response to requests for understand and meaning of such tragedies is echoed succinctly in a quote by Rev. Kevin O'Neil, C.S.s.R., one of my former ethics professors, in a New York Times column earlier this week:
I will never satisfactorily answer the question "Why?" because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God's love is present and Christmas happens daily.
This notion of God as the answer to the suffering that is so tragic, so senseless, so unbearable might help us to appreciate better why the Feast of the Holy Innocents occurs three days after Christmas. As I wrote here in The Huffington Post earlier this week, Christmas is more than one day -- it is an entire liturgical season that begins at Christmas Eve and continues through the Baptism of the Lord, weeks later.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a Christmas memorial, a moment to pause amid the ostensible joy and cheer of the season of the birth of the child who is Emmanuel to recall the death of children whose lives were senselessly taken away.
One way to look at this feast day is to consider how, by its placement on the calendar and its proximity to the celebration of the coming of Christ, it is as an opportunity to reflect on the way in which God is not absent from the tragedies of suffering and death in our world. As Christians, we believe that God became human like us and lived among us. Over the course of Jesus's life, he laughed and cried, he celebrated and mourned, and he understood what it meant to suffer. Crying at the death of a friend and embracing the voiceless, the marginalized, and the poor throughout his earthly life, Jesus Christ knew as well as any of us what it means to suffer and to lose.
But Jesus Christ, the Emmanuel (God-with-us) is also the sign, not just of God's empathetic experience of suffering and loss in our world, but of the answer and model for response. As Fr. O'Neil also said in that Times column: "One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God's presence."
Amid the suffering and loss in our world, it is you and I who, like Jesus Christ before us, offer both the empathetic tears of sincere compassion and the loving embrace and support for neighbor that God calls us to offer. As St. Teresa of Avila famously put it another way:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.
It falls to us to be "instruments of God's peace," as the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis's memory reminds us. But being the hands and feet of Christ to those who suffer or are mourning cannot just be limited to our immediate communities.
What happened two weeks ago in Newtown, CT was particularly shocking to a world that considered such locations - an elementary school in an affluent Connecticut town (according to US Census data, the median income is over $100,000 and the poverty rate is under 3.0%) - to be safe and secure. However, the slaughtering of innocent children occurs everyday in neighborhoods and in cities all over the United States. I only have to think of a few of the cities in which I've lived in the last ten years (The Bronx, Wilmington, DE, Washington DC, for example) to recall how gun-related violence scars the lives of children and families on a daily basis.
The slaughtering of holy innocents occurs in so many other places throughout our world, every minute of every day: the children in Afghanistan and Iraq that have suffered the effects of war, oftentimes because of the United States's interventions; the children of Pakistan, whose lives are shrouded by the fear of silent and lethal drones that fly overheard; the children of Syria, whose world is currently punctuated by a civil war; the children of Uganda, who were forced to be instruments of violence as child soldiers; and the hundreds of other places in our world where the Feast of Holy Innocents reflects the dark reality that so infrequently makes the headlines or the cable-news reports.
This is not to undermine or attempt to mitigate the true suffering and horror of the massacre in Newtown, but rather a call to get us to think about how the meaning of a Christian feast day, macabre though it may appear, might provide us with the opportunity to reevaluate our lives, our laws, and the way we strive to be Christ for others.
Our hearts continue to ache at the thought of young lives taken away, of futures extinguished. Yet, our hope rests in the truth that God is not absent or disinterested in our suffering, our loss, and our mourning. God looks to us to be the instruments of divine peace in this world, the hands and feet, the hearts and voices of the Prince of Peace who invites us to follow Him.
Christmas, the celebration of God-with-us, does indeed continue amid the tragedies of our world, but only insofar as we are able to open our eyes to see the suffering and murder of the holy innocents all over our world, and do something about it.