From the Prophet Isaiah:
Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 54:1a (NRSV) – December 28, 2013.)
One knows exactly why this lesson was chosen for this day and it’s in this verse and it’s immeasurably depressing!
Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, my least favorite of all the commemorations on the church’s sanctoral calender, the day when we pay homage to all the little boys of Bethlehem whose lives were cruelly ended by Herod and his army. There are ways to pay tribute to martyrs and martyrdom; there are ways to honor the loss of life of those killed for their faith. None of them are appropriate to this day, I think. There is nothing noble about this story. These children did not die for a faith or commitment; they were too young to make such a stand. They died simply because of the brutal nature of human government, because men (and women) who have power do not want to give it up and will lash out when their possession of it is threatened.
Worst of all would be the sort of reaction to the slaughter that this verse would seem to encourage! (And I hasten to say that I realize the prophet was not doing so, that the rest of chapter 54 makes that clear. However, I have my doubts about the lectionary editors . . . .)
I cannot sing worth a damn! I was never gifted with the ear or voice for reproducing music. Suppose someone should somehow deprive a great singer of his or her voice — say Andrea Bocelli or Kiri Te Kanawa — should I exult because of their loss? I cannot dance, not a step. Suppose all the members of the Alvin Ailey company should lose their coordination and be unable to take another step — should I exult because of their loss?
Should the barren have exulted that they could not suffer the loss of those with children when those children were slaughtered? Should they? Or should they rather have joined in the weeping for the loss was not a personal one to each parent or pair of parents, it was the loss of the community . . . of the nation. It was not simply the loss of innocents; it was the loss of innocence. Again. Yet, again.
It had happened before and it would happen again. Innocence is constantly lost, sometimes found but never regained, never retained. Nazi doctors experiment on Jewish children; Alawite armies gas Sunni children; the American congress cuts funding for food assistance to women and children. In the end, the result is the same — the sin is merely a matter of degree — innocents are lost and innocence is lost, and simply because I am not affected is there reason for me to exult? Should I not rather mourn?
Perhaps we should rename this day on the sanctoral calendar. Not Holy Innocents, but Holy Innocence — the children are only the most visible casualties.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.