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Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

“And in their mouth was found no guile”

They are the Holy Innocents, the last of the jewels in the Christmas crown of the Child Christ. They are without guile or deceit, and so are unable to harm, hence innocent (Latin, in nocens). And they are, it seems, without speech, hence infants (Latin, in fans).

Unnamed yet known, unnumbered yet numbered, The Feast of the Holy Innocents belongs directly to the festival of Christmas. They are in the narratives of the nativity of Christ in the story of the flight into Egypt. They die in place of Christ who ultimately dies for all. They are the very paradigm of the innocent victim in the truest sense.

It is an awful and frightening spectacle even for an age like ours inured to brutality and slaughter. “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked … sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem.” There is blood in Bethlehem, the blood of the little ones who die because of the wrath and envy of Herod. We live in a world where unnamed and unnumbered thousands of little ones die, the innocent victims of the social, political and personal machinations of others. How can we possibly make sense of the senseless slaughter of the little ones? Whether it is in Rwanda, in Syria, in the Sudan, or in the urban confusions of modern culture in the issues of abortion, child neglect, abuse and exploitation, we confront the hideous enormity of human sin and suffering.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents attempts the impossible. It connects their deaths to Christ and in so doing offers consolation and comfort to the Mothers in Israel, like Rachel, who confront the unbearable loss of their children. It is one of the hardest and yet profoundest aspects of the pastoral ministry to have to bury the little ones whose deaths seem impossible to comprehend. We are like “Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted because they are not.” And we are not in our loss and sorrow. It just doesn’t seem right. And, of course, it isn’t, but the great theological idea here is that their deaths participate by anticipation in the redemptive death of Christ crucified. Their deaths are not without meaning; they become in the words of the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, “redeemed among men, being the first-fruits unto God and to the Lamb.”

The lesson from Revelation helps to think this fundamental idea, the idea of innocent suffering without which we cannot make sense of Christ’s crucifixion and by extension his birth. As one of the carols puts it, “Christ was born for this;” ‘this’ referring to human suffering and death. The purity of the Holy Innocents is like the purity of Christ, who is like us in all respects save sin. He is the absolute sinless one who comes to take away the sin of the world, original and actual. He is the Savior, too, of the little ones of Bethlehem whom “Herod slew in his fury.” They suffer and die not for any fault of their own but because of the sin of others.

It is not simply an accident – enough of those in our world and day. They die because of the evil of Herod, the evil of political ambition ruthless in its determination to hold onto power against the threat of any potential rival. But the idea of innocent bystanders killed for no fault of their own is not new. What is striking in this Christmas feast, hard as it seems, is that their deaths are placed in the purpose and providence of God.

This troubles us, I fear, because it might make it seem that God is somehow the author of their deaths rather than the redeemer of their lives. This is to conflate the acts of humans and the acts of God. The Collect almost encourages this kind of thinking in the phrase “thou,” meaning God, “madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths” but the phrase suggests the theme of redemption itself, the power of God to use every form of human evil and suffering to a greater end and purpose. The point is that their lives, indeed, no life, is meaningless and that their lives and all lives find their truth and meaning in God.

All our sufferings are individual and unique and yet none of them lie outside the scope of divine love. The seemingly impossible deaths of the little ones are part of the story of human redemption; its horror only comprehensible through the horror of the spectacle of Christ crucified without which there is no joy and no glory. They are joined to the purpose of Christ’s birth which addresses directly, completely, and comprehensively the destructive evil of our humanity.

The story has its antecedents in two Old Testament stories, the birth of Moses in Exodus and in the image of Rachel spoken by Jeremiah who is looking back to events in Genesis. Moses escaped a policy of infanticide enacted by the Egyptian Pharaoh to control the numbers of the Hebrews. Jeremiah evokes the loss of Rachel’s children in anticipation of the sorrow of Israel’s exile and captivity in Babylon. In other words, the massacre of the little ones of Bethlehem is located within the larger biblical story of redemption, a story which always reminds us not just of suffering but of human evil. Without that we can make no sense of the birth of a Saviour, a Redeemer, of Christ our Lord.

There is, perhaps, one further significance to this feast. It is the idea that we are more than our actions and more than just the things that happen to us. We are recalled to our fundamental and essential identity in Christ. “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ,” Paul will say, and it is the quiet force of this disquieting feast to underscore the force of that ‘nothing’; nothing can separate us indeed, not even the horror of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

They are innocent infants whose deaths are part of the glory of the innocent infant Christ, the God made man, who embraces all the sorrows of our hearts and all the sufferings of our world, including the deaths of the little ones. They are found in Christ and ultimately live in him even as they died for him.

“And in their mouth was found no guile”

Fr. David Curry
Feast of the Holy Innocents
Dec. 28th, 2013