Holy Innocents II

A response, of sorts, to RJH’s post. This is the text of the end of my ward’s Christmas program from last year. The program was scheduled just two days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and we were all sick and stunned. I still think it’s too glib a response–it’s too easy to love the idea of vulnerability from a safe distance. And yet, and yet…

Now we come to the part of the Christmas story it is usually convenient to skip.
But today we can’t leave it out.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

There it is—smack dab in the middle of the Christmas story: the worst horror we can imagine, the senseless death of children. And God doesn’t stop it. Why? Surely Herod could have been smitten by an invading army, or chicken pox…

Everyone was expecting it—the prophets and the singers of psalms, from Miriam, singing “the Lord is a man of war and he hath triumphed gloriously” all the way to Isaiah prophesying that “he shall reign over the house of David forever, and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” Everybody knows what kings do; everyone knows what power is like, how wars are won—we live in a world where tyranny is common, brutality is a fact of life, and where might makes right.

And God, the mightiest of all, able to change the courses of the stars, did not make it right. At least not in a way we could recognize. His answer was—of all things—a baby. A baby born in poverty and filth, a child of people who had known only oppressive occupation and ruthless exploitation by foreign powers, the apparently illegitimate son of a carpenter. A baby who would be carried out into the wilderness at night, in danger and fear, with the sound of weeping at his back.

And this is God’s gift, and God’s answer to the terrible questions raised by pain and evil. A baby. Have you looked at a baby lately? Spent time with one? I love babies, but they are entirely unsatisfactory as either a practical or philosophical solution to the problems of the world. In empirical, objective terms, they’re just not very impressive. They’re usually a little red and squishy-looking, they smell kinda funky sometimes, and all they really do is eat and poop and cry (and sleep, if you’re lucky). They are deceptively cute bundles of raw, helpless neediness. It’s no wonder, really, that we’ve grafted our celebration of Christ’s birth to a pagan holiday with a little more pomp—we want to think we’re a little grander than the shepherds, a little smarter than the wise men, at least prettier than the goats…There must be something more to Christmas than this scene in the stable. But the constant message of the infant Christ is that, truly, this is all there is. For all our overdeveloped cerebral cortexes, we, too, are creatures—born in bloody agony into a world where what we will crave most, and spend our lives pursuing, is food, and a warm place to sleep, and the gentle touch of someone who loves us for no good reason. The infant Christ, the Prince of Peace, does not blow the trumpet and call us to ride forth in glorious battle; he does not show us the way to palaces where we can live free from want and pain; he does not even save us from Herod’s monstrous evil. He comes, instead, to teach us how to be vulnerable, how to have our hearts broken and then knit together in love.

His gift is in the name “Emmanuel”—God with us. The promise of Christmas is that God is with us, in our joy, in our suffering, and that because he descended to become like us, we can become like him. Our small acts of goodness can be part of the divine plan to save the world, and our own cries will call forth the godly compassion of our fellow beings. Like Jesus, we will be small and helpless and vulnerable. Like Mary birthing him, we will hurt and suffer. Like Joseph, we will be perplexed by God’s working in our lives, be invited to participate in miracles we do not understand. Like the shepherds, we will be amazed and afraid. Like the wise men, we will inadvertently cause great suffering despite our best intentions. And in and through and below all of this, God promises to be with us—and to make our suffering redemptive, as His was, to increase our capacity for love and joy as sorrow carves out space in our souls. The miracle of that strange, wondrous tableau in the stable is that if we seek the shelter of each other, if we attend to the singing of angels and the cries of infants, if we learn to honor the divinity of the smallest and weakest among us, we will find Christ and know our kinship with Him—“when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is;”

In Robert Herrick’s lovely Christmas Carroll:

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who, with His sunshine, and His showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome Him. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart…

By his birth in the stable, and his atoning sacrifice, Christ invites us to “know Him ours” and promises to “set [us] as a seal upon [his] heart”—he extends to us a covenant of belonging. And in that covenant, of belonging to Christ and to each other, our griefs will be lightened and our joys multiplied. We will be partakers in God’s love—the fathomless and infinite love that came down to earth at Christmas.

“Wherefore, my beloved sisters and brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the children of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.”

Amen.

Comments

  1. Thank you for validating my smallness, helplessness, unworthiness,…and faith. And for citing yet another lovely carol that I’ll probably never get to sing.

  2. Did Moses do any better?

    Numbers 31:17-18

  3. I am truly struggling today, and it has intensified after reading this, and RJH’s post. I’ve started 5 comments that became full length posts, before this was posted. I am not personally impacted by the events taking place all over the US today, but I feel that we all are complicit.

    If you missed the news, 1.3 million families in America lose the lowest of our safety nets, long-term federal unemployment, after today. It may take me more than a day, and more than a few comments and posts, to fully articulate why my soul is so heavy, and my heart is weeping. I only know the story of one of those families, but I know that almost all of of the 1.3 million, represents more than one person, many of those losing benefits a households with children. All of them have become more vulnerable, in the middle of this holiday season.

    I think what is most painful for me is that they are in this state, not because of a war, natural disaster or the actions of a single deranged person. As a country, the United States, through our elected representatives, in the House, have chosen to cut off those who are least among us, and their families, for no reason that makes any sense to me. Maybe someone will be able to explain it in a way that makes sense, but none of the reasons I have heard or read, given by the politicians that made this choice, has shown any compassion for the poor, or an understanding of the devastating impact that will come because of this choice. Extension passed in the Senate, but in the House, it wasn’t even allowed to come up for a vote, which would have at least forced each member of the House to be accountable for their choice, to cut off benefits.

    If 1.3 Americans had been hit by a natural disaster, or disease, between Christmas and New Years, we would see massive mobilization, fundraising drives, and political leaders on both sides of the aisle calling for an immediate recall of Congress, to vote on federal disaster relief. We would have local and national fundraisers, clothing, food and blood drives. We would not take the slow road, accepting that 1.3 million families, without the ability to support themselves, is just a politically expedient thing to do. I guess when you want bigger and deeper cuts to the rest of the population, you start with the poorest, and then move on from there?

    I mentioned my heavy heart to someone I consider a friend, (although politically we occasionally disagree) who told me that it wasn’t that many people losing benefits, and that they didn’t know anyone impacted, so they didn’t personally feel any angst about it. This surprised me, because this person was one unemployment for 6 months last year, and has been very involved in fundraising for the families of 9/11 victims, Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina and is on the committee that plans a yearly fundraiser in her community, to help people in Haiti, even though she has never been to the country. I told her that I was at a loss, trying to understand why she didn’t think this was important. Her explanation didn’t make me feel any better; its a political issue and not a disaster, people can get jobs if they want them, (after all she found a job in 6 months, in her field for better pay) and it doesn’t impact anyone she knows, so it isn’t worth getting worked up about.

    You said that this wasn’t satisfying coming on the heals of Sandy Hook, is it more satisfying if the disaster is just a government decision? Does Herrod’s actions, as the head of the government, teach us it is okay to hurt others?
    Is the fact that we are not the ones suffering take away our baptismal covenant, to take on the name and mission of Christ, to care for one another?
    Do we not mourn with those that mourn, if we know of a group suffering, but do not personally know a member of the suffering group?
    Do we not go after the one who is suffering, even if the ninety and nine we know, are okay?
    Or do we follow Herrod’s orders, or at least turn a blind eye to them?
    Are we satisfied that our sons are 3 years old and exempt, or that our pregnancy is in the first trimester, and our child will not be born until after the purge?

    These questions are not to any one person. I am not responding directly to RJH or Kristine, or even to my friend. I am simply trying to understand, both my own feelings, and the feelings of those who do not think it is a big deal to cut off the poor immediately after Christmas. It seems so very unChristian, and like such unnecessary devastation. It is not the instant death that was ordered by Herrod, but it is suffering that seems as senseless to me.

  4. “Extension passed in the Senate, but in the House, it wasn’t even allowed to come up for a vote, which would have at least forced each member of the House to be accountable for their choice, to cut off benefits.”

    Yes, accountability on this issue would be key. At this point, all we can do is pray for those hard workers who were depending on this assistance because through no fault of their own, they lost their jobs in the general chaos of an economy accelerating to greater income inequality.

  5. Antonio Parr says:

    Kristine –

    Thank you for this.

  6. 23 black dogs says:

    Kristine, can you please compile your essays into a book? This is beautiful and lovely and heart-wrenching. Thank you.

  7. I second 23 black dogs motion. Your words never fail to uplift and renew me. Thank you. I would gladly love a book of them.

  8. Here, here. This was as thought-provoking and inspiring as the piece on Lazarus a few weeks ago. Thank you, Kristine.

  9. Thank you for your thoughtful work and the passionate clarity you bring to these events.

  10. Amen to a book of essays by Kristine. As to Juliathepoet–my heart aches along with yours. Today, a very poor family in our ward will lose their mother. Life support will be terminated. It sounds so clinical. We are left with the instruction to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those in need of comfort, but the HOW is entirely in our feeble hands. There is so much we cannot do from our own vulnerable positions. But we do something, whatever it be. It never feels adequate because it isn’t. My prayer is often to show me others who can help. Often, I take a step into the darkness and find the whole world suddenly alive with light, angels everywhere.

  11. Carol Kenley says:

    Absolutely on target. Great message, thanks for the insights.

  12. Beautiful, Kristine.

    Thank you.

  13. I’d would love a book of your essays, Kristine. They always bring clarity and compassion to any issue. I enjoyed this one a year ago, and again today.

  14. You sure know how to make a new mama weep.

    Thank you for this lovely of all posts, especially for this “He comes, instead, to teach us how to be vulnerable, how to have our hearts broken and then knit together in love,” and this “if we attend to the singing of angels and the cries of infants, if we learn to honor the divinity of the smallest and weakest among us, we will find Christ and know our kinship with Him.”

  15. Thomas Parkin says:

    This is really gorgeous, and so to the point.

  16. Thank you for this, Kristine. I tried to comment last night, but either my comment is in moderation or I didn’t actually post it. Either way, I’m glad I found it. It’s like a Christmas gift, hidden behind the tree and missed on Christmas morning. I’m delighted and moved. Really, you are the gift. Your words are a treasure. God bless.

  17. Yes– A book must be compiled. The Kristine Papers.

  18. This was worth saving. I will keep this near Luke 2 and in my heart. So beautiful.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,438 other followers