Today is one of the days in the church calendar that I most appreciate – the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. During the 12 days of Christmas, there is a day to remember that the birth of the Prince of Peace threatened the Roman Empire so much that it resorted immediately to the tool that marks every empire – violence. With a lust for power and control, King Herod ushered a decree that baby boys under the age of two be massacred, in hopes of killing the one who was deemed to be the true King. It was a state-sponsored infanticide, thousands were murdered, and the Holy Family fled as refugees.
As I’m writing this my nieces and nephews are squealing with delight as they run around and play with each other. The two youngest are under two years of age, and I cannot imagine the horror of an army coming around and murdering them in cold blood. (Later, at the dinner table, I was discussing this article, and my dad asked why the “Holy Innocents” are so “Holy”. My 9 year old nephew wondered if it was because being holy is being set apart for God, and these infants died instead of Jesus, so they were set apart in heaven. Genius.)
My appreciation of this awful day might seem a little masochistic. After the peace and beauty and joy that we’re supposed to feel at Christmas, the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents plunges as back into the reality felt by most people in the world: life is cruel and marked by suffering. It’s authentic.
As I speak, violence is rising in the South Sudan and the newly formed country is quickly deteriorating – with hundreds of innocents slaughtered in the past two weeks and a friend of mine having to evacuate the country.
The number of Syrian refugees continues to rise well over the million-mark.
Disaster is still wide-spread in the Philippines after the horrendous typhoon.
The empire of globalized capitalism consumes its slave-labour victims year by year.
In Canada, where I live, First Nations people were ruthlessly slaughtered by European colonists. To this day, Canada’s First Nations are perpetually and systematically thrown aside on their own land. So-called “reserves” are more like majority-world countries. First Nations commitment to stewarding their land, in opposition to the advances of Big Oil are ignored by the settler state, and the majority of Canadians.
This day provides the opportunity to cut out all the bullshit that sometimes comes with Christmas – the other-worldly angelic joy, the commercialism of it all, the pretending that Christmas has saved us all – because it hasn’t…yet.
The Massacre of the Innocents introduces us to what Christ faced in his lifetime. It’s what we are up against in ours.
For Christ, there was a violent empire that when challenged, would not hesitate to kill and destroy all in its path. The same is true for us. The penalty for following this Prince of Peace into darkness and suffering will ultimately threaten the empires that rule today (if we are doing it right).
Hell hath no fury like a threatened empire. So what do we do?
Anne Lamott says in her new book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair:
“We are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering…we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross [like Mary], and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.”
Presence and solidarity with those who are suffering, without any cute platitudes like “God’s plan is perfect” is hard. Such statements only makes things worse, which is why true presence and true solidarity are so essential. They are good places to start.
But then what? Lamott continues
“Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild towns after hurricanes and tornados. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbour, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry…we live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.”
We can do something equally dramatic. To do so, we must go and be present with those who suffer most in our world. Together, we can work for justice in whatever ways we are gifted and able.
One of my seminary professors once said:
“Every act of social justice (or simple kindness) is a foretaste and foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of justice, peace, and flourishing for all.”
So today, we remember. We educate ourselves, and others. We lament. We are present with the suffering. We get stitchin’. But first, we must let go of our sadness and meager attempts to love God. From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod,
receive, we pray, all innocent victims
into the arms of your mercy.
By your great might frustrate all evil designs
and establish your reign of justice, love, and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
This blog originally appeared on Jennifer Galicinski’s website, Sacred Imperfections, and has been lightly edited.