Wednesday 28 December 2016

Holy Innocents

Why did God send just one angel, to Joseph, telling him to run? Why not a bunch of them, to all the parents of young children in Bethlehem?

Why did Joseph not tell them to run? Or maybe he did and they didn't listen? If he did we're not told.
Babies, innocents, die all the time. To say this isn't callousness, it's sad and true. In this sense the issue is not that the Holy Innocents died. They're a specific instance of theodicy - why does God let bad things happen to good people? In this case it's not even a case of an "act of God", a natural disaster. The blood of the Holy Innocents is on Herod's head, and those of his murderers.

Peter Bruegel the Elder - Massacre of the Innocents

This is just - if you'll excuse that modifier - another massacre. Another slaughter. Another shedding of innocent blood, just like all the deaths from Able to Aleppo. This doesn't end - this is who we are. This is what men do in the name of religion, politics or their own power. To us, a vile mass murder. To Herod, just one of those nasty little jobs you have to do.

The one exception in this instance is that one baby with an unusual parentage and an odd set of presents. As that little town is not lying still but grieving, he's off out and heading for some precarious safety.

This is Jesus as Moses - and he so often is, in Matthew's Gospel. He is the one escaping the murder of the baby boys, just like his law-giving predecessor. This is Jesus as the people of Israel - going down to Egypt, and returning.

This is Jesus as remnant - one escaping to exile, as so many innocents die.

The evils of Empire caught him in the end. Just a few miles from Bethlehem. His contemporaries were sad memories by then in the hearts of ageing parents. But he joined them. He got there in the end.

God took on that planned and prophesied role. The holy Innocent dying at the hands of frightened men of power. The Servant suffering with every innocent victim of injustice. God the bereaved parent, knowing the pain of the people of Bethlehem.

And Mary stood at the foot of the cross, joining her tears to Rachel's, refusing to be comforted, because her child was no more.


  1. Check the picture - no children in it! I was listening to Radio 4 this morning and discovered: "Shortly after its creation the painting came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague. The slaughtered babies were painted over with details such as bundles, food and animals so that, instead of a massacre," ...."The shadow of the infants can be seen underneath the over-painted areas. " Rudolph had done in paint what we do in reality - obscure the inconvenient truth of our human barbarity.

    1. Thanks for this.

      I'll be honest I assumed the babies were all in the houses. I chose this specifically because the (to Northern European eyes) festive sights of snow and ale barrels contrasted with the grimness of the day.

  2. Yes I listened to that programme too and learnt about the covering up of the children in this painting. I thought perhaps one of the speakers would bring up the connection to today's massacres of children through abortion but no connection was made not even by Cardinal Nichols.

  3. Of course it may be a (bad) story invented by Matthew to prove a 'point' with his 'prophecy' as history does not record Herod massacring the infants, though it records lots of other appalling things he did.

    1. By Herod's standards a but of light massacring would be nothing compared to the killing of his own sons...


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