11 January 2009

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today on the Old Calendar is the feast of the 14,000 Holy Children of Bethlehem (the ‘Holy Innocents’) slain by Herod (see Matt. 2:13-23). We do not celebrate Christmas without remembering that this feast, ‘Childermas’, as it is known in the West, follows soon afterwards. In the words of St Nicholas's 'Hymn of Praise for the 14,000 Holy Children of Bethelehem':

As soon as the Eternal Physician appeared on earth,
The earth revealed its wounds and sins,
Showing how much mankind is infected,
And how necessary healing from heaven is.

I find this martyrdom exceedingly difficult to recall, and whenever I hear the story read from the Gospel, I am moved to tears. Interestingly, what gets me most is not verse 16, which tells matter-of-factly what Herod did, but the quotation from the Prophet Jeremiah in verse 18, which is fulfilled by this terrible event:

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. (KJV)
The Prophet’s words force upon me the pain of the parents of these children, and I imagine what I might feel if my own little ones were to be put to the sword because of the madness of one tyrant. I can’t help but take a wicked pleasure in the words of the Prologue for today concerning Herod:

Finally, God's punishment came to him: he began to tremble, his legs became swollen, the lower part of his body became putrid, and worms came out of the sores; his nose became blocked and an unbearable stench emanated from him. . . . Thus, this terrible ruler gave up his inhuman soul and handed it over to the devil for eternal possession.

Hardest of all to accept, I think, is that we must in some sense, though not, perhaps, in others, say that it was God’s will that this happened. Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid makes this explicit in his commentary on v. 17, the typical Matthaean prophetic-fulfillment formula—‘Lest anyone think that the slaying of the children took place against the will of God, the evangelist shows that God both knew of it beforehand and foretold it’ (The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Matthew, trans. Fr Christopher Stade, Vol. 1 of Bl Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament [House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1994], p. 29). Furthermore, it was--

The blow intended for the Son of God
Fell with its weight on the innocent children,
Upon young and helpless ones of the same age as Christ.
(St Nicholas, ‘Hymn of Praise’)

It is a startling fact made slightly easier by some of the comments of St Bede the Venerable on this Gospel (Homilies on the Gospels, Book 1: Advent to Lent, trans. Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991]). St Bede early establishes that we are dealing with Martyrs, and that—

in this [death] is represented the precious death [Ps. 115:5] of all Christ’s martyrs. The fact that little children were killed signifies that through the merit of humility one comes to the glory of martyrdom, and that unless one has turned and become as a little child [Matt. 18:3], one will not be able to give one’s life for Christ. (St Bede, p. 96)

With this approach in mind, St Bede first explains why ‘Rachel would not be comforted’, saying that this expression—

signifies that the Church bewails the removal of the saints from this world, but she does not wish to be consoled in such a way that those who have been victorious over the world by death should return once again to bear with her the strife of the world, for surely they should no longer be called back into the world from whose hardships they have once escaped to Christ for their crowning. (St Bede, p. 97)

Having gone on to interpret the Gospel in a largely eschatological sense, St Bede expands eloquently upon the theme of the Church’s proper attitude to this—or any—martyrdom later in this homily.

Nor should we mourn their death as much as we should rejoice about their attaining the palm of righteousness. Rachel must groan over each of them when, through torments, they are driven away from this life—that is, the Church which begot [them] escorts them with mourning and tears, but when they have been driven out, the heavenly Jerusalem, who is the mother of us all, soon receives them into another life by ministers of gladness who are ready at hand, and introduces them into the joy of the Lord to be crowned as his forever.

. . . They stand in the sight of the Lamb, and for no cause can they be separated from contemplating his glory there, since here they could not be separated from his love through punishments. They shine in white robes, and have palms in their hands, who possess the rewards for their works; while they get back their bodies, glorified through the resurrection, which for the Lord’s sake they suffered to be scorched by flames, torn to pieces by beasts, worn out by scourges, borken by falls from high places, scraped by hoofs, and completely destroyed by every kind of punishment.

. . .

Rachel will not bewail her children, but ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Rev. 7:17; 21:4), and give them the voice of gladness and of eternal salvation in their tabernacles, he who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit for ages and ages. Amen. (St Bede, pp. 101, 102)

There is an interesting painting by the Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt, called ‘The Triumph of the Holy Innocents’, that captures this image in a touching, if somewhat fantastic, way (see a brief discussion of it here). But I think St Bede’s medicine is enough. Perhaps I am not comforted in a worldly sense, but in an eschatological, heavenly perspective, which begins to be more and more natural, I find a comfort that even the restoration of these little ones back into bodily life would not give. For, in the words of St Nicholas's Hymn of Praise'

Upon the young forerunners of His suffering,
Christ bestowed the eternal joy of Paradise.

One custom in the West on Childermas is that the youngest child of the household gets to make all of the decisions, and a food of a predominantly red colour should be eaten to recall the blood of the Martyrs (see Fish-Eaters). There are even quite a few poems and carols, among which the most well-known is the ‘Coventry Carol’, that tell of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Here is the text of this most famous of the carols as printed in the full context of the Shearmen and Taylors' Play of the Coventry Cycle in Joseph Quincy Adams, ed., Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama From Its Origin Down to Shakespeare [Boston: Hought Mifflin, 1924], pp. 164-5:

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child;
By by, lully, lullay, thow littell tine child;
By by, lully, lullay!

O sisters too, How may we do
For to preserve this day
This pore yongling,
For whom we do singe,
By by, lully, lullay?

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child;
By by, lully, lullay, thow littell tine child;
By by, lully, lullay!

Herod, the king,
In his raging,
Chargid he hath this day
His men of might,
In his owne sight,
All yonge children to slay.

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child;
By by, lully, lullay, thow littell tine child;
By by, lully, lullay!

That wo is me,
Pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and may,
For thi parting
Nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay!

It is a sad fact, of course, that in our own time, more innocent children are murdered each day than ever before in history. In so far as we condone or tolerate this situation, we have all become Herods.


Esteban Vázquez said...

In his sermon, our priest compared Herod and his rule over the Jews with Tito and his rule over the Serbs. The parallels were indeed striking (down to the fact that both of them even died what you might call "death by stench"!), and the comparison was very effective homiletically.

aaronandbrighid said...

That's pretty cool! Were there magi from the East who came to Tito?