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.