Saturday, December 29, 2012



I’m sure that this year’s December 28 feast of the “Holy Innocents” struck many people as extra-poignant because of the recent slaughter of the little children in Newtown, Connecticut. The connection, as discordant and horrifying as it is, is actually right in line with the theology of the feast.

Why does St. Matthew recount such a gruesome event anyway? And why does the Church bother to "celebrate" it? The answer to both questions is pretty much the same, and is certainly more valid in our day than it was in past centuries.

Over the last century and a half, Christmas has become very romanticized, centering on the cuddly little infant lying on the straw with angels bending near the earth to pluck their harps of gold.

This sweet, gentle imagery, however, can distract us from a central truth about Christmas – indeed the only purpose for God’s becoming human in the first place – that Christmas is about redemption. It’s about God becoming one of us precisely in order to save us from sin, suffering and death. The story of the slaughter of the innocent babies in Bethlehem, then, gives us a powerful reminder of the very kind of thing we need to be redeemed from.

The Church knows this well. During the week after Christmas she celebrates the feast of the stoning to death of the first martyr, St. Stephen (on the very day after Christmas, no less!) and after a couple of days gives us the image of babies being killed with swords by Herod’s henchmen. But even these feasts have lost their punch by being repeated year after year, and the mental images they evoke have become more and more genteel, sanitized and idealized over the centuries.

So, as the Newtown massacre has reinvigorated my own image of the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem, I pray that its horror will serve to remind each of us just how badly in need of redemption we are both as individuals and as a world. Redemption that cannot come from material possessions, worldly power, or any of our other manmade substitutes for God.


On Christmas evening I was able to go and visit with my family for a couple of hours. The feast was doubly blessed this year by the presence of not one but two new infants in the family: my grand-niece Lilly and her cousin, my grand-nephew Dominic, each of them just a few months old. Every time you turned around there was one of the babies being held by someone.

At one point I was struck by baby Dominic’s profile as he slept in someone’s lap: it was exactly like the baby in La Tour’s painting The Newborn (see last week's post). Dominic’s tiny snub nose made me think of the image of the babe in the painting. Then, as the two new babies kept getting passed around and fussed over, I realized that Jesus comes to me all the time, in my brother monks, and especially in my teenage students. We all seem to know instinctively how to treat a helpless infant, patting or rocking or making soothing sounds, and we would surely treat the newborn baby Jesus the same way. I admit, though, that when Lilly started to fuss loudly in my arms I immediately passed her off to someone who knew better what to do with her.

Now, when Jesus chooses to come to me not as an infant but in the guise of some adult who is troubled and troublesome or as someone who puts irksome demands on my time or my patience, well, sometimes I wish that I could just as soon pass that person on to someone else just as I did with Lilly! But that’s clearly not what the Lord is expecting me to do when he drops himself into my lap.


The Sunday within the “octave” (the seven days following Christmas) is always the Solemn Feast of the Holy Family. Here we go again: The idealized picture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in their cozy home in Nazareth seems to be on the same level as any Currier and Ives or Norman Rockwell painting of the idealized family Christmas. For so many people, though, all these depictions simply point up their own disappointing family situation.

But look again. Maybe the feast of the Holy Family, too, has more to say to us. Poor Joseph has been operating in the dark, with only dreams and divine messengers to guide him in the present and with no sense of what the future holds. Then there’s Mary who is also operating on faith, nursing a baby whose very presence is a mystery and whose future is unknown -- except that the prophet Simeon has told her that a sword is going to pierce her heart because of her son. This is hardly the stuff of romantic tales.
And how about the holy family’s escape into Egypt to avoid the murderous wrath of a psychopathic ruler? They wind up seeking refuge in a foreign land where they don’t speak the language. Not your ideal family situation, but one that is repeated by refugees thousands of times a day around the world. For these people the image of the holy family in Egypt can be a beautiful comfort, and an assurance that God will not abandon them either.

So, as we celebrate these post-Christmas feasts let us remember that the reason for the incarnation was to confront evil in the world and to set things right. May the graces of this season move us to do our part in bringing about that promised ”Peace on earth!”

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Philipp Otto Runge circa 1805

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