12-28-15 Holy Innocents
“Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under” (Matt 2:16).
Sixteenth century Flemish artist Peter Bruegel did one of his characteristically detailed and wide angle paintings of a village where occupying Spanish soldiers are killing children. It is winter, and against the blood-stained snow in the village square, the people swarm among the elegantly dressed officers on horseback begging for the lives of their children. The contemporary theme of political and religious violence by the Spanish, an arm of the Catholic Inquisition against the Protestant Reformation, is cast as the biblical scene in today’s Gospel of the massacre of the innocents by Herod.
What makes this heartbreaking depiction as universal as el Mozote in El Salvador or My Lai in Vietnam is the historical fact that when the painting was acquired by the Holy Roman Emperor, the murdered infants were painted over as animals or plundered foodstuffs, the same attempt at denial that has characterized so many other atrocities. They never happened. They always happen as violence and intolerance are unleashed by war, and the innocents pay the price.
We hear in the cry of the mothers in Matthew’s Gospel the anguish of the Hebrew mothers in Egypt whose male children were slaughtered to control the population. But Moses escapes to return as liberator. In the slaughter at Bethlehem, the Holy Family escapes to Egypt to wait out the tyrant. The dreamer, Joseph, insures that the promise is protected so the boy Jesus can grow in grace and stature to confront sin and evil in the world.
Three days after Christmas we note the cost of our salvation and the historical truth that whenever God’s gracious power appears, all hell breaks loose in a desperate attempt to stop it. The logic of earthly power is always that it is better for one innocent person to die than for the system to be shaken.
The Word became flesh and dwells among us. We share the Eucharistic body and blood to ground us in the struggle in this world between good and evil, grace and sin. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to bend history toward justice and mercy by the way we live, even if it costs us our lives.