In some preparation for this service, I did some extra reading on the Feast of the Holy Innocents and its place in the Church. Some of the things I read were unsurprising. There is thought that the day was remembered with the Feast of Epiphany for the first couple centuries, but by the fifth century, the feast was celebrated on its own. The babies and toddlers slain by Herod in an attempt to keep the king of the Jews from usurping his place were considered by the early Church to be the first martyrs for Jesus. Because of their deaths, Herod presumed he’d gotten the child the wise men sought to visit, so he was able to drop his guard. They were not martyrs of the Church, like Stephen on Wednesday, but they died all the same for Jesus.
Some of the traditions around the feast did surprise me. In monasteries and convents, the youngest monks and sisters ruled for the day in place of their abbots and mother superiors. Bishops took to selecting a youth to serve as the diocesan for the celebration of the feast – sometimes this seems to have gone on for a week. Of course, sin being ever present, these ideas of elevating the ministry of children were corrupted. What was meant to honor these slain children and Christ’s teaching on children eventually became a mockery. By the time the 15th century rolled around, the Council of Basel had to outlaw the practice. Another practice that has fallen by the wayside, thankfully, over the years, was one developed by our British ancestors. Parents or pastors would wake the children this day by beating them in their beds, thereby putting them in the appropriate somber and reflective mood of what had been suffered by the Holy Innocents so many years before. Yep, like y’all, I’m thinking maybe there’s a place to revisit that practice! For some reason, my kids disagree. They’d much rather serve as bishop, rector, or parents for the day!
In the modern Church, and in particular our Anglican church, the day is increasingly being used to remember those children or youths who have died untimely deaths. I know my sermons and Randy’s on Job this past fall caused the subject of miscarriages and stillbirths to be discussed in many quarters. A few Adventers even lost growing children due to accidents or diseases. I know my pastoral conversations that month convinced me that Liturgy & Worship had done a great thing in adding this feast to our parish calendar. I had hoped two or three dozen folks would come tonight. I certainly figured it would be far better received than a Bible study on Job.
In other corners of the Communion, the feast is used to commemorate those who suffer any injustice in the world. I can well imagine our brothers and sisters lamenting the deaths of two children in our custody while their parents tried to claim asylum. I can certainly imagine our brothers and sisters around the world using a similar liturgy to mourn those who lost their life due to natural disasters such as floods, fires, or tsunami.
What we celebrate tonight was approved at General Convention this summer and, for what it is worth, has intrigued the bishop. If you are new to us tonight, the idea of complaining to God and lamenting before God may seem out of place in a church service. Many in the wider church community buy into that narrative that everything that happens to us God planned for us. It may seem a subtle difference to some, and crazy to others, but God is working to redeem us and all that we suffer. He is not some omnipotent monstrosity sitting up in heaven saying “Billy needs to lose his job today at Christmas so that he learns to trust Me,” “Susie needs to come down with cancer so that she learns to worship and pray to Me,” “Fred failed as a husband so I need to punishing him by doing this to him.” Those things happen, as part of life, but only because we rejected God and allowed sin to enter into us and the world around us. The Litany of Complaint reminds us that we can rail at God about our life’s circumstance. Not only is such complaining NOT a sin; God encourages us to complain to Him. Think of the psalms of Imprecation. Think of the complaints of the prophet. God has given us those examples in Holy Scripture Himself.
The same is true of laments. An entire book, albeit rather short, is devoted to lamentation. It is more than appropriate that we share in deep sorrow with God with the events that beset His beloved children. Laments recognize at a fundamental level that things are not as they are supposed to be. And so, tonight, we use a liturgy that formalizes that understanding, encourages us to cry out to our Father in heaven to make it right, whatever the right is, and to remind ourselves to trust in His grace. The liturgy we celebrate tonight is specifically designed for those who suffered the loss of children, in that we share with the Psalmist and the prophet, but there may be lots of other appropriate losses or sufferings that cause deep suffering within us. We are reminded this night that our Father, Whose only Son we killed, knows all too well our pains, our hurts, our anger, our raging impotence, and our need. Like all those who suffered before us and threw their cares on God, we, too, will ask God for the grace the bear the cross we have been given.
One such corporate suffering is the loss of babies. We live in a culture that takes for granted the idea that women get pregnant when they want and have babies when they want. I shared with Adventers over the readings on Job how that illusion was smashed by my experience in seminary. I think at one point seminarians had suffered something like fourteen miscarriages. We also had a couple babies die at birth. I shared at the time how one of my children refused to get excited about pregnancies because “what’s the point, they are going to die anyway.” I think the stories resonated with Adventers because ordinands, those seeking to become priests in Christ’s church, ought to be the ones most protected by God in the minds of many. Yet here seminarians were, toiling for God and suffering similar loss.
The wider Church and the wider world makes it even harder, doesn’t it? When folks find out a lady has suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth or some other tragic loss of a child, what’s the response? My guess is that many of you gathered here tonight have heard those cruel words of comfort: “It’s just as well. There was probably something wrong with the baby, and you would not want THAT burden.” “At least the child is no longer suffering.” “God needed another angel,” as if angels and human beings are interchangeable and God could make the heavens and earth out of nothing but He couldn’t make one more angel? And my personal favorite: “You are young. You have plenty of time to try again.” I see that some of you have heard those words. No doubt some of you have heard worse.
And, although only one Y chromosome is represented among you tonight, men have shared with me here at Advent their lack of outlet to mourn that loss. In some ways it is harder for women, as you ladies feel the new life getting active within you. For us, it’s a theoretical experience until a doctor places that infant in our arms. But some men begin dreaming and making plans the moment they find out their wife is pregnant. Some men begin to plan out sporting events, hunting trips, fishing trips, and all kinds of bonding experiences for that life growing within our beloved wives. And when that life is lost, what do we do? Our friends say even meaner things to the guys. We know intuitively that our wives often feel guilt and worry they did something wrong. How can we add to her burden? And so we suffer. In silence.
And in that silence, the voice of God’s speaks to our hearts. “Father, do you think this was God’s way of punishing me for sleeping around when I was younger?” Father, do you think that was God’s way of trying to get my attention when I was younger?” “Father, do you think that was God’s way of telling me I really shouldn’t try to be a father? I mean, it turns out I was not as good at it as I thought I would be.”
We gather tonight and remember the Innocents who died while the Holy Family fled to Egypt for both comfort and encouragement. Some theologians and ancient historians like to debate whether the events described in Matthew’s Gospel really happened. I get the questions. I understand how some of us might wish there were more sources that described the events of that time. But God is famous throughout His Scriptures in lifting up the marginalized and working through the lowly. I read a couple articles this week in preparation for this service that figured fewer than two dozen babies or toddlers were killed by Herod’s men. Given the size of the town of Bethlehem and human statistics, it is likely no more than 24 toddlers around Jesus age existed. The killing of them in a backwater province, in an Empire which routinely extinguished lives like we do candles, such deaths could pass relatively unnoticed. Yet here’s Matthew spending a few lines of his Gospel and relating to us the unimaginable horror experienced by those families at that time. Could it be a fanciful retelling of Pharaoh’s edict in Exodus 1? It’s possible. Once you have accepted that God can create from nothing and raise a dead man to life, though, what need has He of such fanciful stories? Given that Herod killed three of his own sons, is it really that hard to accept he killed another 15-20 infants and toddlers to ensure that he remained in power?
I think Matthew includes the story because it is true and it reminds us of the heart and attention of our Father in heaven. In an Empire where life was cheap, of what value are a few more? In a kingdom where a king killed his own sons, why do our modern sensibilities find these deaths so shocking? God, of course, misses nothing. God sees and knows all. In His kingdom nothing is beneath His notice. There may have been as few as a dozen children killed, yet God caused their deaths to be memorialized in the Church as a reminder that He never forgets, He never does not pay attention. And so we who see or experience such sufferings can take hope and encouragement. We may have felt alone when we lost a child, but we are reminded in this story that God most definitely was paying attention. We may think our personal tragedies irredeemable, but God reminds us, through the work and Resurrection of His Son our Lord that nothing is beyond His power or will to redeem. And, just as significantly in these stories, we remind ourselves that this, all that happens around us, be they good things or bad, are not what He intended for us.
And so, once again this night, we cast our fears, our hurts, our failures, our anger, and everything else that works to enslave us, that works to seduce us from His fatherly embrace of each one of us, on His most capable shoulders, knowing that He who redeemed sin and death can redeem whatever evil brought us to this service tonight and bend that event, no matter how terrible its impact on us and others in our lives, to the point that He is glorified. Make no mistake, you will likely still bear some sense of loss. You will still bear some possibilities of “what if.” Until our Lord calls you home or until He returns and re-creates everything as it was supposed to be, you may suffer moments of melancholy. That’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with your faith. There’s nothing wrong with wanting God to fix everything.
But that same God who sent His Son so that we might experience the wonder of that Silent Night Holy Night of Monday night, and the hope we should feel when we recount the story of Easter, is the same God who promises to redeem all things in your life, even that unimaginable hurt you bear this night, that in the end, He may be gloried in you and you in Him.
In His Peace,