Friday, December 28, 2012

Feast of the Holy Innocents: The Unjolly Side of Christmas

Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border.
Jeremiah 31:15-17

Although Christmas has become one of the biggest holidays of the year, the real message and meaning of Christmas has become so completely lost that we don't even call it by its rightful name anymore.  It is now a "holiday", a time of fun and festivities and parties, lights and glitter.  We forget the story of a husband and wife away from home, about to have a baby with nowhere to go, and the eventual birth of this baby in a lowly little manger.  We are so involved in our celebration of "Christmas" that we completely push God out of the picture.  As our Holy Father pointed out in his Christmas sermon, the story of Joseph and Mary finding no room in the inn symbolizes the place of God in our modern world and and in the lives of far too many individually, and by extension how we treat one another:
Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have.
And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away.
If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the "God hypothesis" becomes superfluous. There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so "full" of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger.
* * *

Family members of Newtown's victims
What are the consequences of pushing God out of our lives, of allowing the material and profane to take the place that God should have, of having no time for anyone or anything other than our own wants and desires?  We recently saw one very visible result in Newtown, Connecticut when a young man shot 28 people to death, 20 of whom were only 6 and 7 years old.  We know the murderer spent his days playing violent video games and was involved with the occult, that he even had a website dedicated to Satan.  Our great adversary, whose main goal is to destroy us, had taken the place of God in the life of Adam Lanza, and as a result, evil invaded an elementary school in its worse form.

The massacre in Newtown, Connecticut was eerily reminiscent of that which took place shortly after the birth of Christ 2000 years ago.  December 28 is Feast Day of the Holy Innocents in which we honor those small children, all under the age of 2 years, who were massacred by King Herod in his quest to kill the Christ Child, whom he saw as a threat to his kingship.  As in the case of Newtown, this was a time when we saw evil at its ugliest, destroying innocence and purity.

It may seem strange to some that Holy Mother Church would have a feast day to actually celebrate these tiny martyrs, especially three days after celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior.  Christmas is suppose to be a time of joy, right?  "Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la", etc.  One day after Christmas, we celebrated the martyrdom of St. Stephen who was killed by stoning, and now we're celebrating the gruesome massacre of innocent babies.

What's with this Church?

The Feast of the Holy Innocents
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
I have copied  below an excellent homily on this subject that was posted on a website run by five Jesuit Priests called "Whosoever Desires."  They do not tell us who gave this sermon, but we are told it was "Delivered in St. Louis, Missouri at the Jesuit Formation Gathering 2010."  They entitled this post, "Feast of the Holy Innocents: A Homily".  I think this sermon really shows the seeming contradictions contained in Christmas, that it is not just egg nog and "good cheer", but as this sermons starts out, "the most complex season of the church year":
Christmas is the most complex season of the church year.
For the past few years at these formation gatherings, Paddy Hough has made us sing a song entitled the Seven Joys of Mary. It has an infuriatingly upbeat melody, several jolly Britishisms, and a list of seven purported joys that Mary experiences. Some of the joys are really stretching the concept of joy. One of them is Jesus being nailed to the Cross.
To hear the song once is to have it etched on your brain forever, and if you’ve not yet heard it then just wait, I’m sure it’s coming sometime in the next few days, perhaps even at this very mass. But what really bothers me about the song is the fact that it’s considered a joy to watch your son being nailed to a cross and even more stupefying is the fact that it’s a Christmas song. Christmas is all about the joy. But here we are with Jesus, still fresh from the womb and we’re already calling his crucifixion a joy. It’s enough to make you schizophrenic.
Lighting the Advent Candle, a contradictory mixture of
purple for penance and rose for joy
Whatever holy Englishman came up with those words, though, was onto something. Christmas is the most complex feast on the Christian calendar. Just judging by the liturgical colors one can see that it’s the least stable liturgical season of the year. If you include advent, and for the purposes of this homily I will, if you include the colors of advent we have the purples of pentinence, the blush of gaudete joy, the white of the star of David. And the red, yes, the red of the blood of the martyrs. All of this transpires over a period of a few weeks. This is not the seemingly unrelenting white of the fifty days of Easter. The Advent and Christmas seasons have a panoply of colors—and of experiences. Elizabeth, once barren, now conceives. Mary, unwed, yet betrothed to Joseph, also conceives. There’s no unalloyed joy in that annunciation. In one gospel passage, John the Baptist leaps for joy and then later on he languishes in prison.
The Stoning of St. Stephen
On Christmas day the whole world exults in joy over the birth of a child, then, typically, the next day we Christians remember the blood of the first martyr to die on behalf of our faith. On Christmas day, we remember a child born on an inky dark night pierced by a searing star, then only a few days later we remember the slaughter of a host of children—we wear the color of the blood of martyrs too young to know why they died the vicious death they did.
Christmas is the most complex season on the Christian calendar. The real Christmas story is not only the PG-13 affair we see so often on Christmas cards and in crèches. But the real Christmas also has all of the violence and darkness of rated-R film—Christ has not been born into a shake-up snow globe. He’s been born into this world of ours, full of inky darkness and complexity. Rather than the pastoral scenes of warmth and intimacy of the manger, we have a much darker reality unfold before us.
We place the celebration of the incarnation amidst a miasma of reds, purples and blacks. It’s as if to remind us exactly what sort of world is the setting for such an event as the incarnation. It’s a dark stage on which this drama first begins to unfold and to paraphrase a poem by Mary Karr, Satan spider-like stalks the orb of dark surrounding Eden, looking for a wormhole into paradise.
If there ever was a wormhole into paradise, then it’s the destruction of the holy innocents at the hands of Herod. Feeling threatened by some unknown king to come, Herod cracks open the happy orb of Eden; as soon as the new Adam is born we have a new Cain in Herod who dashes the skulls of the innocents against the rocks of fear and distrust.
Rubens' Massacre of the Holy Innocents
This is not the Christmas of fluffy sheep, kindly magi, and lowing cattle. The night of Christmas night is certainly silent but there in the silence is the still small scratching of evil at the doorstep. Silent night indeed. Christmas it would seem is a horror story worthy of Stephen King. It’s no wonder then that the secularization of Christmas replaces such images and stories as these with Santa Claus and Rudolph. The Grinch is about as dark as the secular world is willing to go, and even the Grinch has a miraculous change of heart—his heart grows three sizes and then he’s motivated to return all that he had stolen. No real lasting damage is done.
What Herod stole—the lives of all those children in Judea—cannot be replaced, even had he experienced a change of heart.
What are we to do with the story of the holy innocents? We could just breeze through it—and most do just that, since the story is only heard by those who go to daily mass. We could just disregard since it’s an event from just one of the gospels.
But to do so would be to miss one of the main themes of Matthew’s gospel account of the birth of Christ. Evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing to counteract the good, in the form of God, who so desperately wants to enter our world and make his dwelling with us.
Strangely and perhaps even paradoxically, one of the Christmas messages is about the nature of evil in our world. On the flipside, and this is the good news of Christmas, the good, in the form of God who lives among us is at one and the same time very fragile and very resilient. God comes into our world as a infant—a human infant. One of the most helpless of all God’s creatures. Resilient in that he survives his escape into Egypt—a place not known for it’s hospitality towards the children of Abraham.
As religious men what do we take away from this complex situation? As companions of this fragile and resilient Jesus, what are we to do in the 21st century where God still desperately desires to pitch his tent among us?
In one sense, the holy family offers a model for religious life in the 21st century. Like Mary we are to ponder all of this complexity in our hearts. Like Joseph we are to father forth the good God who loves us. Mary notices everything and ponders all in her heart. Joseph shepherds the young family on what must have been a wild journey into the deserts of Egypt. Mary was no Pollyanna. Joseph was not a man ruled by his fears and anxieties, as was Herod. Our spiritual exercises teach us to contemplate the good alongside the bad. Our spiritual exercises also teach us to follow and pursue consolation—not a silly, postcard happiness—but a freedom from anxiety, a freedom from upsetting doubts.
At the end of this formation gathering we will recommit ourselves to our religious vows, and we could do very well to take Mary, Joseph and Jesus, The young holy family, as our guides and models for religious life in the 21st century. We heard yesterday that we, as Christians, are perpetually running. Paul says he’s run a good race, and we too must run faithfully.
Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with the Christ Child
We are on the road to Egypt with the Holy Family. A road that is more unknown than known, more dangerous than it is peaceable. To ignore this would be to ignore the Christmas message—evil exists and good is fragile and resilient.
Thankfully our fragility is made even more resilient in the food we are about to consume. This is not the milk and cookies left out for Santa, but the body and blood of our savior.
* * * 
The Truth from heaven is always much bigger and grander and more complex than anything man can invent.  The story of Christmas is far more than a charming little children's story about angels and shepherds.  As was told in this most eloquent homily, it is the real story of "God, who so desperately wants to enter our world and make his dwelling with us" notwithstanding the fact that "evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing to counteract the good, in the form of God."

Planned Parenthood Clinic, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Our world is becoming more godless by the day, and as a result, is becoming more evil by the day.  What civilized society has ever had legal killing fields, also known as abortion clinics, as we have.  What culture has ever been so determined to destroy the family, without which no society can function?  We are now talking about arming our teachers with guns in order to keep our children safe, and not even questioning how we have ever got to this point.  We rightfully mourn the tragic killing of our children in Connecticut, but we blithely walk by abortion clinics which are killing our children by the thousands every day, and think nothing of it.

From the Holy Father's Christmas message:
If God’s light is extinguished, man’s divine dignity is also extinguished. Then the human creature would cease to be God’s image, to which we must pay honour in every person, in the weak, in the stranger, in the poor. Then we would no longer all be brothers and sisters, children of the one Father, who belong to one another on account of that one Father. The kind of arrogant violence that then arises, the way man then despises and tramples upon man: we saw this in all its cruelty in the last century.
Only if God’s light shines over man and within him, only if every single person is desired, known and loved by God is his dignity inviolable, however wretched his situation may be. On this Holy Night, God himself became man; as Isaiah prophesied, the child born here is "Emmanuel", God with us (Is 7:14). And down the centuries, while there has been misuse of religion, it is also true that forces of reconciliation and goodness have constantly sprung up from faith in the God who became man.
Into the darkness of sin and violence, this faith has shone a bright ray of peace and goodness, which continues to shine.

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