Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reflection on the Lectionary: St Vincent

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Reflection on the Lectionary: St. Agnes

Song of Solomon 2:10-13

My beloved speaks and says to me:

"Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away."

The Psalm
Psalm 45:11-16 Page 648, BCP
Eructavit cor meum

"Hear, O daughter; consider and listen closely; *
forget your people and your father's house.

The king will have pleasure in your beauty; *
he is your master; therefore do him honor.

The people of Tyre are here with a gift; *
the rich among the people seek your favor."

All glorious is the princess as she enters; *
her gown is cloth-of-gold.

In embroidered apparel she is brought to the king; *
after her the bridesmaids follow in procession.

With joy and gladness they are brought, *
and enter into the palace of the king.

Psalm 116:1-8 Page 759, BCP
Dilexi, quoniam

I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
"O LORD, I pray you, save my life."

Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.

The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.

Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.

For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

Matthew 18:1-6

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea."

Reflection on the Lectionary: Second Esdras

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, "Who are these, my lord:" He answered and said to me, "These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned and receive palms." Then I said to the angel, "Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?" He answered and said to me, "He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world." So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. Then the angel said to me, "Go, tell my people how great and how many are the wonders of the Lord God that you have seen.Jesus told the twelve disciples,

"See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. "

Theodicy and the Haitian Earthquake

A natural response to disasters like these is to ask 'where is God?' This is a very old response, going back to Job's wife, who urged him to 'curse God, and die' (Job 2:9). But the answer, of course, is that we can see God in miracles like these, the rescue of children buried under rubble for a week, and in the way he inspires good and courageous people- Haitians, Americans, Israelis, Venezuelans, Cubans- to lay aside their differences, at least temporarily, and work together to succour the helpless.

Shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, which was for Jews of the time a catastrophe even bigger than the Haitian earthquake, inasmuch as it destroyed not just a city, and hundreds of thousands of human lives, but the very center of their history and faith- an anonymous Jewish convert to Christianity, meditating over the fall- amid blood, fire, and anguish- of what his people had considered the holiest site in the world, said, "Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14). Indeed, for as the Lord said, "In this world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33). The Christian faith, which is shared by almost all Haitians (Catholicism is, in fact, the state religion of Haiti) is not a religion of starry-eyed optimism. As my high school headmaster was fond of saying, hope is not optimism. The Christian faith begins with a stark assessment of the fact that this is a world characterized by pain, suffering, fire, flood, earthquake, plague, hunger, thirst, poverty, and oppression. Rather than running away from that fact it seeks to make sense of it. When Christianity becomes a feel-good gospel about how God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, and in which all our problems can be taken away, in which 'God helps those who help themselves', and which theologians rhapsodize about the beauty of the design inherent in nature, and say that such a beautiful world could only have been made by God- this may be many things, and may even be inspiring and pleasant, but it is no longer truly Christian. The symbol of our faith is of God Incarnate nailed to a cross, and every Good Friday- every day, in point of fact- we are called to remember that this is a fallen world, under the domination of evil, and the 'prince of this world' (John 14:30) or in Paul's words, 'the god of this world' (2 Corinthians 4:4) is no friend to human hopes, joys, or aspirations. The earthquake in Haiti, which victimized some of the poorest, most desperate, and most long suffering people in the world, is just more proof.

This world isn't a world to be accepted as it is, it is a world to be struggled against: to be changed to the extent we can change it, and to be transcended to the extent we can't. We have this assurance though, that God grieves over the state of our world as much as we do, for He watches over the fall of every sparrow. And we can rest secure in the faith that when we do our best to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and help rebuild a damaged and devastated country like Haiti, he is with us, and we will never be forgotten.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.


As of yesterday, survivors of Haiti's earthquake, buried in the rubble for over a week, were still being found.

A 22 year old man was rescued from the rubble yesterday by an Israeli search and rescue team, while a 7-year old boy and 11-year old girl were rescued on Tuesday, and a 5 year old was rescued on Wednesday. All are still alive. More than 121 people, according to the United Nations, have been rescued alive from the rubble. Of course as the days passed that becomes more and more unlikely, and the bereaved families and friends of those who haven't heard from their loved ones are gradually beginning to adjust to their loss.

The news reports from Boston, Miami and New York, which are the three major centers of Haitian immigrants in this country, suggest that a lot of Haitian-Americans are anxiously waiting for news from their loved ones. Communication over the phone to and from Haiti is apparently fairly poor at the best of times, and at a time in which lots of phone lines, among other infrastructure, have been destroyed, it's probably even harder now. Hopefully they will soon be able to make contact with their loved ones and fine them alive and safe.

Blessed be the Lord, for miracles like preserving the life of that 7 year old boy buried under rubble.

Haiti Earthquake

I'm sure all of you know all about this already, but on Tuesday, January 12, the long-suffering nation of Haiti was struck by a giant earthquake, magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was about 16 miles from the capital, Port-au-Prince, and much of the capital was destroyed. The Haitian Interior Minister has estimated that the catastrophe will ultimately claim about 100-200,000 lives, or between 1 and 2% of Haiti's entire population.

As with most natural disasters, the poor were most severely hit by this earthquake, as they're more likely to live in poor quality housing. But the influential and powerful were not spared, either. As we have all heard, the Archbishop of Port Au Prince, Msgr. Serge Miot, was killed, as was the head of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, the Justice Minister, and an important opposition politician. The Cathedral, the presidential palace, the National Assembly Building were all destroyed, as were most roads, hospitals, the airport, and other infrastructure.

Already by January 21, some 80,000 people had died and been buried in mass graves; the true number of deaths is probably many more. An estimated 1,000,000 Haitians, or 10% of the population, are currently homeless. Huge numbers of people are sleeping out in the open or under makeshift, hastily erected tents, without food or water, injured and sick, exposed to the risk of infection from contaminated water sources. All in all, some 3 million people are believed to have been personally affected by the earthquake.

Haitians are currently living in a horrible state of limbo, waiting to hear news of relatives or friends who may have been in the Port-Au-Prince area, and to find out if they are all right. Many more have been struck with the devastating news that someone they loved had their lives snuffed out in 45 terrible seconds on January 12th. Or- even worse- that they were trapped under rubble, or left suddenly homeless- and died after several days of pain, hunger or thirst because rescue workers could not get to them in time.

This horrible natural disaster has elicited sympathy and help from many quarters around the world. In a rare example of international cooperation, Venezuela and Cuba have joined together with the France and United States in sending aid. Cuba has sent teams of doctors (one of her most common and most direly needed forms of aid to other developing countries) while Venezuela was the first country to respond to the disaster, by sending free fuel, donations of food, search and rescue efforts, water purification systems, and electrical generators. Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez deserve our praise and thanks for stepping up and doing what was right, as do Barack Obama and Nicholas Sarkozy.

This was one of the most serious natural disasters in the last several decades, and has wreaked almost unfathomable damage on what was already a country wracked by severe poverty, hunger, and hopelessness. Please do what you can to help. Catholic Relief Services is a great organization, with a good reputation for low administrative costs and little waste. They are currently distributing emergency supplies to people- clean water, sanitation kits, shelter supplies, medical items, mosquito nets and nutritious food. Partners in Health is another great organisation, based in Haiti and founded by the American doctor Paul Farmer. Their mission was originally to bring high quality health care to the rural poor in Haiti, but they have in recent years been moving into agricultural development and poverty reduction as well, and have now taken charge of a lot of the relief efforts in Haiti. The Red Cross is also doing a lot of work there, as is Episcopal Relief and Development, Oxfam, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Doctors Without Borders. Please consider making a donation- as much or as little as you can afford, it will be helping to save lives in a very direct way. And remember, what you can afford is also a somewhat flexible term. You may consider, for example, skipping a couple meals each week in the next few weeks and adding that money to your Haitian donation.

I normally funnel my donations through Catholic Relief Services, and they have the nice feature that they will earmark your donation if you ask them (e.g. to 'Madagascar Food Crisis', 'Haiti Earthquake Relief', or whatever). They have currently put $5 million up front into earthquake relief there.

But yes, again, please do make a donation. Donations of money are better than food or clothing or medicine, but those could work too. You could also donate time- if you have time, or were planning on taking a vacation later this year, consider going to Haiti and doing some volunteer work with a good organization. Or donate your time here, by trying to raise awareness of Haiti's situation. If you know any Haitian immigrants, think about what they may be going through, and spare a thought for them. And if they might be in need of a favor, do it for them. Lobby your representatives in Congress to increase aid to Haiti, to send more money, more troops to preserve order, and more technically skilled people over there. And ask them, too, to make it easier for Haitians to immigrate to this country, and for Haitians who may be here illegally to be given protection and amnesty.

And, yes, if you're a praying person, then pray for Haiti.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Feast of the Epiphany

This Wednesday, Jan 6, marked a major feast day for Christians: the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany means 'manifestation" or 'appearance': it was on this day that Christ, the Desire of Nations, became manifest to the world. It was on this day that the Magi came, Zoroastrian priests from Persia who had been ruminating for centuries on their own religion's messianic prophecies, who were drawn to the West to adore the infant Jesus. And yes, on this day it was made manifest that he was not just a Very Special Person, but the Divine Son of God. This is the meaning of the second gift of the Magi, the frankincence. In our modern world we have forgotten what frankincense signified: but the Jews knew, and so did the Persians, and certainly Matthew's audience knew. Frankincense was a type of incense used in worship, used as an offering to the Lord Most High: in offering it to Jesus, the Magi showed that they recognized him as divine.

I don't have all that much to say about Epiphany, as I kind of expressed the best of my thoughts on this occasion last year. I will say this: it's one of my favourite feasts of the church year. It tells us that God doesn't work through one faith alone: He spoke to the Persians as he spoke to the Jews. The Zoroastrians of Persia had a great deal of mutual exchange of ideas and influence with Judaism, during the centuries that the Jews were under Persian rule: even the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, was the old lingua franca of the Persian Empire. Christianity owes its concepts of heaven, hell, the devil, angelology, and the Last Judgment largely to Persian influence- these ideas weren't common, or much emphasized, in Judaism prior to the Exile. And if we accept this, which we must, then we must also accept that in some way, the Persians too had experiences of God, just as did the Jews.

Zoroastrianism, beginning with Zoroaster himself, had predicted the coming of a saviour who would establish a reign of peace, justice and love on earth, and who would vanquish the forces of evil. They even believed that the Saviour, when he came, would be virgin born. It's not known for sure to what extent these ideas developed in the pre-Christian era, as opposed to the middle ages, but it seems probable to me that they were ideas of old lineage, that existed prior to the coming of Christ. For God had spoken to the Persians, and in some way they knew what to expect, and it was in thinking over these prophecies that the Magi became convinced that the king who was to be born in Judaea was the Saviour whom their prophet had foretold.

Imagine the kind of faith and humility it must have taken for the Magi to leave Persia behind and journey west. They had no guarantee that they would find what they sought. Indeed, this was a particularly unpromising time to expect a King of the Jews to be born, a mere single generation after the last heir of the Maccabees had been murdered in his bath and Judaea had passed for good into Roman hands. At around the same time as the Maccabees had won freedom for the Jews, Persian had established independence from the same hated Seleucids, and at the time of the Magi's visit has established itself as a bitter rival of Rome. To journey to Judaea was to journey into enemy-held territory: and more, it was to journey to the land of a subject people, who had once been ruled by the Persians and had been a small and insignificant segment of the Persian empire. How much humility must have been necessary for these three wise men- the scientists, the intellectuals, the theologians of one of the world's great empires- to venture west to the land of a small, former subject nation, and kneel before a child on a bed of straw, next to a donkey's stable, and offer the gift that was an unmistakable confession of divinity?

The Magi were men who had attained the good things that the world had to offer: wisdom, knowledge, favour, respect. And we are led to believe that unlike so many people of the time- unlike Herod, unlike Pilate- they had won them through virtue and service to the truth. They had little in their lives of which to be ashamed: these were not prostitutes or tax collectors driven by guilt to throw themselves at Christ's feet and ask for forgiveness. Yet in their own way, they did so nonetheless: they knew that for all their wisdom, and knowledge, and for all the collective religious experience and spiritual wisdom that their culture had attained through the grace of God, there was still something missing. In their own lives, and in the religious life of their nation. As there was with everyone. Persia, along with the Jews, represented probably the closest that any nation had come to understanding the nature of God, prior to the Incarnation. It still wasn't enough. Because without the Incarnation, nothing could ever be enough. Not man's wisdom, virtue and striving at their highest: not God's own revelations of himself at their most intense. Even the best of Man, and even the most vivid and comprehensive visions of God, still left a gap that seemed unbridgeable. It could be, and was, bridged only by the Incarnation: when "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."

"We are come to worship him" said the Magi (Matthew 2:2). The words are unambiguous: the Latin uses "adorare", to adore. The Persians, though they believed in two coequal gods (one good, and one evil) recognized only one worthy of worship, the perfectly good God, Ahura Mazda. The didn't worship the angels, or holy men: they worshiped God alone, under his name Ahura Mazda, and when they adored Jesus with the incense of divinity, they recognized him as Ahura Mazda made manifest in the boy in the cradle: the Word made flesh. They weren't afraid of confessing what seemed like blasphemy to Jews and Romans and no doubt to orthodox Persians as well. As they were great in humility, and great in faith to perceive in this unassuming child the confirmation of their dreams and revelations, they were also great in courage. They must, too, have been great in fortitude to endure that voyage across the desert- the lands between Judaea and Persia are not, and were not then, pleasant lands to travel across.

The story tells us that when the Magi saw the infant Jesus with his mother the Ever Virgin Mary, they "rejoiced with great joy" (Matthew 2:10). We tend to think of religious experience as something solemn and somber, and in truth it is, but it can also be an experience of tremendous joy. For Theresa of Avila, the vision of the Angel was like being pierced with a flaming sword (and from early on, people have read between the lines to interpret her vision as having its erotic component). If erotic love is a mirror of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, and between the Holy Spirit and Our Lady, then surely erotic pleasure is a mirror of the pleasure we will get when we open ourselves to God with a pure and willing heart: and indeed, erotic pleasure may be one of the few things we can analogize it to. The joy that the Magi felt when they saw the final end of their quest- and in truth, the final end of their lives, and the final end of all human existence- was surely something like the joy that John Donne felt when he said, "Unless you enthral me, I never shall be free, Nor ever chaste except thou ravish me."

We are told, further, that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to KIng Herod. God did not give them a single vision and let them do what they would with it: on the contrary, he continued guiding them. They had opened their souls, their bodies, their lives, to His will and His guidance, and as it is said, "To whoever asks, it shall be given: to whoever knocks, it shall be opened." Once they had given themselves over to the love of Christ as he lay as a child in the stable, they would never and could never be the same again. Not that they were entirely different people. St. Matthew tells us that they returned to their country "by a different way." They didn't stay and become Jews, or Romans, and they didn't die, like Simeon, confident in the knowledge they had achieved all they had hoped to achieve in life. On the contrary, they went back to Persia, and presumably returned to their lives of service, virtue, and the pursuit of truth.

But again, "by a different way." No longer were they the same people, who had sought for truth without sure knowledge of where it might be attained. For now they knew the truth, for as Christ says, "I am the truth." They were, in fact, the first Christians, if we take that in a broad sense, for they were the first people to have worshiped Christ as Divine. No doubt they continued to be good Persians and good Zoroastrians, and probably good intellectuals as well: but now they knew, which they hadn't before, in what and in Whom lay the final fulfilment of Zoroastrianism, as well as the final fulfilment of all that is good, true, and beautiful in human life. For all good things have their ultimate origin, and final end, in Christ.

These were quite likely already men well into the prime of life: but as with St. John, God blessed them with long life. Every day that we live is a blessing, one more day that we have been spared from death, and the Magi were in this regard blessed many times over. Tradition tells us that they lived to watch, from afar, as Christ fled to Egypt and returned; as he grew in wisdom and was tempted; as he healed the sick, fed the hungry, and preached; as he was given over to death, and as he rose from the dead and then ascended into heaven. They were alive, we are told, when St. Thomas came to Persia after the Ascension, and set up the first Christian church there. And in the same way as they had lived long enough to see the prophecies of Zoroaster fulfilled in the Incarnation, they lived long enough to see Christ's mission on earth completed, and they joined the task of building His church on earth. When I die, I hope to have led as complete and full a life, as did the Magi, and to be able to look back on a life in which, like the Magi, the deepest longings of my heart have been fulfilled.

Lord Christ, at the Epiphany you made yourself manifest to the Magi, and revealed yourself in glory and honour: have mercy on us who are veiled in the illusions and shadows of the world, and reveal yourself to those people of all faiths, or of none, who are searching with sincere hearts for the truth. Amen.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Who sinned, this man or his parents?" Reflection on the Daily Office

This Monday, two days before the Epiphany of Our Lord, included a particularly strange, compelling and interesting passage in the Daily Office readings. Here is an excerpt from it, below.

"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus answered, Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work" (John 9:1-4).

Here we see, in encapsulated form, the most powerful and compelling argument against the Christian faith, which has vexed Christians- and before them, followers of many other religions- for thousands of years, which has given infinite ammunition to those who would argue against the existence of God. Theologicans call it the Problem of Evil. Simply put, if God is both perfectly good and of unlimited power, then why does He permit evil to exist? Why should people be born blind, or sick, or crippled, or afflicted with all manner of other evils- disease, poverty, starvation? Why doesn't God prevent such evils from happening?

Some have got around this problem by denying, or qualifying, that God is truly all-powerful, and by arguing that this universe is a battlefield between two equally matched adversaries, one good and one evil. This was the tack taken by the Zoroastrians of Persia, by the Manichaeans, and by a whole slew of Christian heresies throughout the ages: it is, it seems, an idea that we keep finding compelling, because it seems so logical. Others got around the problem by arguing- horrendously, to my mind- that God is beyond good and evil (I think some of the more extreme Calvinists went along this road). But to orthodox Christians, who hold that God is more powerful than any evil adversary, and also that He is perfectly good, and cannot be anything less than perfectly good, this has been a tough and nearly insoluble dilemma.

Ultimately, I suspect it can't be solved purely in the arena of reason and the intellect: because becoming convinced both of God's power and his goodness is an act as much of the heart as of the head. Tertullian couldn't refute Marcion purely on the ground of reason, but he could look at a flower of the meadow and say, "Did the devil create something as beautiful as that"?

How would I answer the disciples' question to Jesus? Well, I would start by saying that the man was blind because of something that had gone wrong with his body- something perhaps developmental, perhaps genetic, perhaps something that had afflicted him in the womb. But that is only to provide a proximate explanation. Beyond that, one might say that the laws of nature are set up in such a way so that sometimes biological systems break down, and organs malfunction. This is a further explanation, but it still doesn't provide an answer to the deepest question. Why are the laws of nature set up that way- why do mutations, and accidents, happen like that, and why doesn't God correct them? One could argue that, as John himself did, that this world is ruled over by a dark power, whose nature is evil, and that the laws of such a universe are inevitably going to result in evil and suffering. That's a more 'ultimate' answer but it still doesn't get to the heart of things. Whether we think of that evil power as something eternally existent or as something created by God, it still forces us to ask this question: is he equally powerful as God, or less so? And if the power of evil is less powerful than God, then why does God allow evil to exist at all?

This is the problem of evil in its sharpest form. There are a few ways to answer it- many of the answers that revolve around human free will, of course, don't explain _natural_ evil which is what we are talking about here. The way I prefer is to argue that God is perfect by his very nature, that being perfect means (among other things) possessing all virtues, that one such virtue is the hatred of and opposition to evil, and that therefore evil must exist, and must have existed from the beginning, in order so that God could be perfect not merely in exemplifying good but also in opposing evil. In order for God to be perfect, in other words, there must be evil in the universe, at some level.

Another way to say this, of course, is simply the way Jesus said it. He didn't provide a full answer, of course, but his one sentence answer provided the core of all Christian answers to the problem of evil, and the basic theme on which all the philosophers and theologians to discuss this question in the succeeding two thousand years have simply been fleshing out. Jesus said, simply, that evil must exist in order that God can bring good out of it. Aquinas said it similarly, in his refutation of the atheist's challenge to the existence of God. I would disagree with Aquinas in arguing that I don't think God _can_ completely extinguish evil, as to do so would detract from his perfect goodness. In this sense, I have a more qualified and limited sense of what 'omnipotence' means than most historical Christians. But I do agree with Aquinas- and ultimately, with Our Lord- in my basic understanding of what the answer to this question must be: that a God who struggles against evil, who spits into the ground and heals the blind with the touch of his finger, who knows temptation at the hands of the devil and who ultimately dies the death of a common criminal, is more perfect- and thus, more real- than a God who does not. Evil must exist in order for God to oppose it, to hate it, to strive against it, and ultimately to conquer it. In other words, evil exists, in order that by striving against it, "the works of God may be made manifest."

Glory be to the Father, the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Holy Innocents, second year, part II

Here is another reference to Herod's massacre of the Holy Innocents, from Revelation 12:4-5. 'And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.' This passage is, of course, popular with Catholics and Anglo-Catholics because of the honour it gives to Mary, the Mother of God.

Chesterton said, of the massacre of Holy Innocents, 'On the first Christmas, the demons also feasted, after their fashion.' And he ties together, brilliantly in my opinion, the massacre of the Holy Innocents to the horrible tradition of child-murder and child-sacrifice that had gone on, in the name of the dark god Molech and his other name, Baal the Lord, throughout the ancient Middle East and that had persisted as a dark undercurrent through the Old Testament. Like a dull, dirgelike refrain, the Old Testament, literally from Moses to Malachi, is full of the warnings against the cult of Molech. Roman history, too, is punctuated by the war against Carthage, and the way that Rome barely escaped destruction and obliteration at the hands of the Carthaginians, and their cult of child sacrifice to the demonic Molech: and Roman culture was marked forever by the memory of that trauma. As Elijah reminds us cuttingly, eventually every man must choose between God and Baal, between the one who chose to be born as a child and the one who chose to consume them.

For Herod was, not merely by habit and nature but also by ancestry, the descendant of those who had lived next door to the Jews, and had practiced the kind of child sacrifice and worship of the demonic that has provided a tempting siren song- the temptations of power, of mystery, and of evil- to Jewish culture for a thousand years. He was an Idumean, and his people had begun by worshipping Baal/Molech with child sacrifice, and providing an ever present temptation that men like Ahab and Manasseh fell victim to. Later, his people had converted to Judaism. Herod himself had been placed on the throne of Judaea by the Romans just one generation before Christ: when the last revival of an independent Jewish kingdom faded from the pages of history. The kingdom of the Hasmoneans had ruled with a feverish brilliance for a hundred years, after Judah the Maccabee, who had won his people's freedom from the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes through a relentless and heroic campaign of guerrilla war and established an independent Jewish state for the first time in four hundred years: it was brought to an end a generation before Christ when the last male heir of the Maccabees was drowned in his bath by Herod. This was Herod the usurper, Herod the collaborator, Herod the incestuary, Herod the traitor, who chose at last to become Herod the murderer of children. In this way Herod not only embodied the evils of the future, and of all the mass murders of children that would plague the bloody twentieth century, but also the evils of the past, summing up in one last gasp the dark will of Molech and of all evil forces that strive to destroy children.

Chesterton points out something that our age has forgotten: that throughout history, the worship of power, of lust, of greed, and more generally of the dark spiritual forces that lie just under the surface of things, has usually involved a curious hatred of children. The red dragon, in its urge to destroy the Child, is symbolic not only of the Evil Power and its inspiration of Herod's massacre, but of a desire to destroy children in general. This is the real meaning of the worship of Baal and Molech, of the curious accounts of witches' sabbaths in the middle ages, of the Roman habit of exposing children on hilltops, of Gilles de Rais' orgies of child rape and murder, of the horrible serial killers of our time, of Milton Blahyi's resurrection of cannibal atrocities and child-sacrifice in the late twentieth century, and of the way in which in our time, Evil has tempted priests, clergymen, schoolteachers, and politicians to abuse and blight the lives of children in their care, and in which Evil has tempted those of us who live in wealth and comfort to ignore the cries and the suffering of those children who live in poverty and misery. If that red dragon could get its way, this would be a world without children, and a world without life.

Christ loves children, for as he said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for the kingdom of heaven is made of such as these.' And for just this reason, the evil power hates them. For it is the nature of evil to hate what is good, true, and beautiful, for no other reason than that it is One whose very core and very being is hatred of the good. Just as God is love, His enemy is pure hatred, and this hatred expresses itself supremely in the hatred of those who, by their perfect innocence and childish wonder and awe, express more clearly than anything else the kind of wide-eyed wonder and love that we should try to emulate in our own lives. To fully understand love, as Christ tells us in Revelation 2:6, it is necessary to understand evil too, and this is key to understanding evil: to know that evil, by its very nature, hates children, and strives to do them ill, and that for this very reason, we are bound to strive to love children, and to help them thrive whenever we can. Whether that means volunteering at a school, helping to care for one's nieces or nephews, donating money to children in the third world who suffer from poverty or disease, or doing good to children in other ways, we should know and remember that whenever we do any of these things, we are striking a blow for good and against evil: for God, and against Herod.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Feast of the Holy Innocents- A second year's reflection

This December 28, as always, marked the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on which the Church commemmorates the children, two years and under, who were killed by Herod when he heard of the birth of Our Lord. Because of its combination of tragedy and hope, it strikes me as a powerful evocation of the nature of our tragic world, and I find it one of the most moving and compelling feasts of the liturgical year.

Much of what I wanted to say about this solemn occasion, I said last year, in a post heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov'. But I have a few other reflections for this year. I attended Mass on Monday, to commemorate the feast, and was struck by the second reading, which was different from last year. here it is.

'And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God' (Revelation 14:1-5).

The selection of this reading, inasmuch as it identifies the children slaughtered by Herod with the 144,000 virgin martyrs, says several things to me. It recalls, first of all, the importance that St. John, who wrote the book of Revelation, placed on mystical experience of the divine, and the way in which that type of experience is unique to each of us and can't be easily shared or apprehended by others. Compare the way the passage describes how 'no man could learn that song but the 144,000' themselves, with the way Revelation 2 describes how Christ will give each of us 'a new name which no one knows but the one who receives it.' Truly, the experience of Christ is something different for each one of us, and in the eternal hereafter we will each understand some aspect of the nature of things in a deeper way than anyone else.

The passage also says something about the nature of good and evil.

It is the nature of evil, not to create as much as to corrupt. Evil takes the good things of this world and turns them to evil purposes. Lust is the corruption of erotic love, bigotry the corruption of faith, jealousy the corruption of romantic love. In just this way, the evil power that dominates this world took the greatest act of love we have ever seen, when God the Word condescended to become a Man, and used it to inspire Herod to commit a great act of mass murder, killing the children of Bethlehem and the coast. In the same way, the Magi came to Christ in order to worship him (the gifts of frankincense at the Epiphany show unmistakably that they recognized this child as divine). This was a beautiful act of love, of faith, and of self-surrender, to recognize that this child in the manger, hidden in a cave somewhere outside Bethlehem surrounded by animals, was in fact the Second Person of God hidden within human flesh. What an unprepossessing, unassuming appearance for Christ to take on- a little child lying on a bed of straw. This Divine Child had not come in glory or in power, and to recognize him as God must have taken an immense act of faith, and a willingness to judge not by the appearance of things, but to believe that things were other than they appeared at first glance. These Magi had left behind their homes, their security, their wealth, their status, to come and worship the Divine Child. And yet Herod, or more accurately the Evil Power working through Herod, turned this good and meritorious act of supreme faith to evil purposes. For we are told that the Magi's search for the infant Christ tipped off Herod to the time of his birth, and facilitated his massacre. 'Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared' (Matthew 2:7).

Yet ultimately, at last, God is stronger than the evil power, and what the evil power turns to evil purposes, God eventually orders towards good. Out of this horrible massacre of children, God created the first martyrs. In her great book, 'Death Without Weeping', Nancy Scheper Hughes recounts the folk belief among Brazilian women that young children who die go straight to heaven and become little angels attending the throne of Christ the Lord. And in a society where infant mortality- from poverty, from hunger, from disease, from thirst, from privation- is so high, and in which unjust social and economic systems have abandoned children and their mothers to misery, suffering and death, this belief provides an invaluable source of comfort to such mothers, and who are we to say they are wrong?

Probably, this passage is what gave rise to that folk belief. Out of Herod's massacre, God made the first Christian martyrs, who though they did not know of Christ, and could not have (for they were simply infants) nevertheless died in his place and for his sake, and are assured of an incalculably glorious reward. For it is the nature of children to follow their elders, just like baby goslings following their mother in Konrad Lorenz' famous experiment, and thus it is truly said of these glorified children, 'they follow the Lamb wherever he goes.' Our Lord said that 'Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child shall in no wise enter therein' (Luke 18:16) and this is why: because the first Christians, the first people to enter heaven, the example for us all to follow, are truly these little children, slain and martyred for his sake, that died in a state of perfect innocence, with 'no guile in their mouth', and that follow him with a perfect and childlike love. For the power of evil is truly a power, as Goethe said, that 'always willeth evil, and always worketh good'.

What are some of the signs of this childlike innocence? The passage suggests two: that perfect innocence means, like a child, lacking guile, lacking the ability to lie or deceive. These children, who are represented among the 144,000, were also perfect in virginity, for as is the case with all children, they lacked not only sexual experience but also sexual feelings. Perfect innocence, as Christ tells us in his Sermon on the Mount, means not only abstaining from illict action but also from illicit desire, for whoever looks upon a woman with concupiscence has committed adultery already in his heart. Before the fall of man, we were like children, not knowing good and evil, and though we can never return to that idyllic state, and all attempts to recreate it will inevitably end in tragedy, we can still revere and respect those of us in whom such innocence and beauty does reveal itself, in young children. A child is truly one of the most beautiful things in this world, and it is for this reason that evil so often reveals itself in its most horrific form, in the desire to harm children. For children are truly the prototype and example of pure and wondrous faith and love, and all of us in some measure, must strive throughout our lives to be like children in our capacity to wonder at the world around us, to look with wide eyes on our beauty, and to have no guile in our mouths and to harbor no corrupted desires in our hearts.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.