A Sermon on Holy Innocents

Maggie Helwig

“And he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem, who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16).

We do not know, of course, if this was a historical incident. That’s a debate that’s not going to be settled. But I can easily treat it as historical because, if it did not happen at that exact time and place, it has happened a thousand other times. A routine atrocity in an unimportant country, recorded by almost no one; and if I named for you now Kraras or Fence of Legs or the Markale marketplace, these words would have no meaning for most or all of you, these small massacres in distant lands, as unremembered by the world in general as a slaughter of children in a corner of the empire was by the empire’s own chroniclers.

It is a part of the normal operations of power. But even worse, in this case, it is the direct result of the coming into the world of the Incarnate Word. It is a contradiction which should terrify us, confuse us. Leave us, perhaps, speechless, though I continue to speak to you here.

Holy Innocents is commonly observed on December 28th, and that means that Christmas, our feast of light, our celebration of the incarnation, and the opening of Christmastide, which is observed as a time of joy – Christmas is immediately followed by two commemorations of acts of political murder, the death of Stephen the first Christian martyr on the 26th, and the Innocents two days later. We are reminded, and reminded instantly and brutally, that Jesus’ coming into the world in our flesh did not fix things, did not make this tragic world suddenly okay.

When love comes into the world, power does not give in and withdraw. Power fights back, and the coming of the Word in human flesh calls out power’s response in the form of violence, horrible pointless violence. Stephen’s death we can just about manage. We know that the incarnation was a sort of crisis point which demands of us a moral stand. We know that moral stand may cost us dearly, may cost us everything, and Stephen reminds us of the price that may be paid. But the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is something else. They made no choice, these babies and toddlers; neither they nor their families were given a choice. Power, sensing a threat, simply lashed out at the nearest and most vulnerable target.

And if Jesus had not been born, at that time, in that place, those children would not have been killed. Do not underestimate the seriousness of this. Do not forget them, do not pass this story off because it is brief, because even Matthew attaches little weight to it, because even he seems prepared to treat tiny children as the necessary collateral damage of salvation.

It is not all right. I have seen attempts to make it all right, by saying that the dead children will all be in heaven with Jesus, by saying that we all die eventually, by saying that we need to look away from the slaughter and focus on Jesus saving us from our sins. No. None of this makes it all right. Because of the dead children of Timor and Cote D’Ivoire and Haiti, because of all the helpless victims of power, I will not say it is all right, and a faith which tries to tell us that is not a faith we should accept.

It is the problem which Ivan Karamazov presents to his brother, the young monk Alyosha — the refusal to accept happiness, to accept salvation, built on “the foundation of the blood of a little victim,” of a child who did not choose or consent to suffer. And Ivan builds this problem into what has become Dostoyvevsky’s most famous passage, the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, in which the old Inquisitor accuses the imprisoned Christ of coming to humanity, a humanity which wants, and wants with all legitimacy, no more than to be fed and looked after, to be safe and happy, and instead offering them only freedom and suffering. And what gives us, any of us, the right to accept or approve that suffering on behalf of tortured and murdered children?

So we wish for, we try to construct, a God who will compel us to be good. The Inquisitor is, on that level, entirely right. We want a God who will fix us against our own will, who will take away our violence and our self-interest and our selfish fears, who will not permit us to lash out at the weak, who will write the Law in our hearts in such a way that we are not able to resist it.

And, as Ivan Karamazov’s story tells us, God refuses to do that. God will not act as another power in the realm of the powers. God will not, cannot, be one coercive power among competing others, not even the greatest of all coercive powers, because that would serve simply to validate a universe of violence. God will love and suffer and die, but will not compel. And so, for as far we can look into any foreseeable human future, the children will continue to be killed. And I cannot blame Ivan Karamazov when he wants to return his ticket for that particular ride.

And yet Ivan concludes his parable with a strange and wordless moment. Christ approaches the Inquisitor, silently, and simply kisses him; and the Inquisitor shudders, and opens the door of the prison and releases his prisoner. And when Ivan reiterates his refusal to accept, and asks if the holy Alyosha will now renounce him, his brother goes to him and kisses him too. “That’s plagiarism!” cried Ivan, delighted …“Thank you, though.”

Ivan and Alyosha both – like their literary creator – understand that there is no solution to this problem on the level of argument. You cannot construct a system of belief in which the suffering of children is acceptable. Yet to return your ticket, as Ivan himself know, is no solution. It doesn’t change the story of power. And I do not want to live as if power is the only story.

You’ll undoubtedly be relieved to know that I’m not going to conclude this homily by getting down from the lectern and kissing all of you; it would be an interesting gesture, but not perhaps an appropriate one. But there is a reason that I chose to have the Coventry Carol sung as we entered the chapel. Because it too is a human gesture which speaks against the story of power. Because it remembers the murdered children, and because it is a gesture in which these children are personally, individually, particularly cherished and comforted and eternally recalled. It means that someone, many hundreds of years later, read Matthew’s account and remembered, and knew that the story of the children was the real story, and gave us a song for all the innocent casualties in all the backwater unimportant places of the world, each of them loved at the end by someone, each of them mourned.

The philosopher Judith Butler, in an essay entitled “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” writes: “Perhaps one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly forever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation), the full result of which one cannot know in advance … Is there something to be gained from grieving …and not endeavouring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? … To grieve, and to make grief itself a resource for politics, is not to be resigned to inaction, but may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself.”

And this is, perhaps, what faith means in the light of the murder of the Innocents. It means undergoing that transformation, into a person vulnerable to others, recognizing them, changed by them, changed by the loss of any life to violence or deprivation or pain. It means choosing to live as if the children were the important story, the true story, as if power were the illusion.

For Matthew remembers this story, and tells this story, and all the Gospels tell us finally of a Christ who offers himself in love to the world of power and accepts the worst that it can deal out to him and moves through this into a greater life. And living this story means choosing to believe that the God who will not compel us to be good may still somehow, in a process of infinite movement which we cannot clearly understand, draw us all into love, gather up the tortured children and redeem their small unmeasurable tragedies, remember each wound. Make all things new, without denying any of the tears which led there. I choose to live in this story, to live my life as if it is true.

It means choosing, too, to be, like Christ, where power is not, to live in weakness, to be vulnerable and grieving and angry, but not to resort to the exercise of violence ourselves. We are not asked to approve or rationalize political murder, to see it as an acceptable means to an end. Nor are we allowed, ever allowed, to forget it.

Instead, we are asked to be where the victims are, to accept their story as the story that matters, and to live our lives within that story and not within the narrative of power.

We will not, any of us, achieve this very thoroughly or well. It is an impossible demand – like, perhaps, all demands that matter. And where the victims are is not always as obvious as it is in the story of the Innocents; we are much more likely to be caught up in confusing narratives where we and others are both violator and victim, where violence commonly takes the form of indifference and neglect rather than outright killing, and the transactions are as likely as not to be involved with economics and complex social arrangements and how we choose to live our daily lives. Our choices will be complicated, and difficult, and not very rewarding, and we will rarely know if we have chosen rightly.

But I will look again at the final vision of the book of Revelation. It has dangers, this vision, when it is seen as a story of magical rescue, something which cuts off Ivan Karamazov’s moral dilemma by simply dumping a just and acceptable world down from the sky to land on us. Precisely, in fact, compelling us to goodness like the Grand Inquisitor. But it can be read as something else. A promise, like Alyosha’s kiss, that no one is renounced, that no one is finally lost. That if we can live in the thirst and the grieving, and not deny it, and sing as we are able to the children of this world, we will be living within a story which ends in love. A story which – though we cannot explain, can articulate this only through a kiss or a song – has always been love.

The Rev. Maggie Helwig is the assistant curate at St. Timothy, North Toronto, and Chair of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto’s Social Justice and Advocacy Committee.


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