Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dec. 28th Feast of The Holy Innocents

Revelation 14:1-5
Matthew 2:13-18

No sooner have we enjoyed our Christmas Mass, our Christmas dinner and whatever happy celebrations with family and friends, than we find ourselves facing the fact of martyrdom the next day, with the death of St. Stephen. We in the Church know that day to be more than simply a song about Good King Wenceslas feeding a poor man. The feast of Stephen was never difficult for Christians to understand, inasmuch as the martyr's crown is a crown of triumph. That is why we Christians do not fast for our martyrs; we do not mourn. Rather, we have feast days for martyrs. And, the choice of St. Stephen to lay down his life for Jesus Christ carried with it all the marks of heroism, faith, courage and mercy as he forgave his persecutors with the same love Christ himself had demonstrated from the cross. And, the day after that we celebrate the memory of a holy life, the life of St. John who understood charity, and who fulfilled his ministry faithfully as an Apostle, and as an Evangelist. The joy of Christmas goes on on those two days, the second and third days of Christmas, and have nothing in them that ought to seem puzzling, or even shocking.

But, today, the fourth day of this brief joyful season of Christmas, presents the very sad picture of cruelty and injustice, violence against the weakest and most helpless of persons, children under the age of two. They could not defend themselves, and neither could any of them choose to die bravely. Nonetheless, the Church calls this a feast day and does so because the slain children are recognized as martyrs. We shall have to examine why they are martyrs, and therefore why we are feasting. After all, none of these children had power to take the heroic decision that St. Stephen did. Indeed, they were given no choice and no way out (and, no doubt, many of the parents died with their children, warding off the blow of Herod's mercenaries). So, we must use our minds to understand what the Church has taught from ancient times, and see why these helpless ones are listed among the martyrs of our Lord.

But, before we do that, let us look at what these deaths have in common with others that are not considered to be martyrdom. Only in this way will we be able accurately to see the one crucial distinction that sets them apart from so many victims of violent injustice.

Indeed, whether it is an active government murdering the innocent after the manner of Stalin, Hitler, and many others, using soldiers against their own people; or murder for profit and selfishness, such as Mafia hit-men, abortionists, and all other assassins commit, or the deranged murders of ideological terrorists, victims include the helpless and innocent. In this way the Holy Innocents have much in common with the victims of injustice that have died in every age. And, in this country we have every reason to see the murders commited by means of abortion reflected in their deaths; for the aborted child, who is certainly also a victim of murder, is every bit as helpless as were these children. This is the evil not of an active government bent on extermination, but of a passive government failing to protect the sanctity of human life. Even so, the complicity is there.

Herod was a madman, and like Pharaoh who ordered the killing of every male child among the Hebrews, we see something devilish at work, since Christ as the Prophet like unto Moses, foretold by Moses himself, was targeted for death as soon as he was born. The warfare was, after all, cosmic, and it was spiritual, the conflict of the kingdom of God against the dominion of Satan. Against injustice the Church needs to reclaim her prophetic role in society, giving a sense of moral accounting to the whole culture. I do not say merely moral propriety, but moral accounting, since "we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ." (Romans 14:10)

And, so then, why do we feast on the memory of such a painful and sad day? Many other madmen have ordered such mass murders to be done, and their victims do not all qualify as martyrs. What so many victims do not have in common with the Holy Innocents of Judea, is the crown of martyrdom.

And, martyrdom is not simply a part of history. There were more martyrs in the 20th century than in all previous centuries of the Church combined. The last eight years have shown no respite, no let up. In modern times Christians have been martyred for bearing witness before Communist Atheists, before Nazis, and before Muslims; and the numbers are staggering. And, all they have a crown of glory that awaits them. When Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, had to cut back a few pages of each issue a year ago, I asked James Kushiner and David Mills not to cut the the segment called "The Suffering Church," even if cutting it would provide more room for my own articles. I am glad to report they have not cut it, and in each issue you can be informed of the persecution of our fellow Christians in other lands, especially for purposes of prayer and works that may help them and their families.

Let us recall that a martyr is a witness. A martyr is not simply a person who dies for a cause, and certainly no suicide and no terrorist can be a martyr; that is, not by the correct definition. The martyr is not marked by death, but rather the martyr is marked by the purpose for which that death was inflicted. The Greek word μάρτυς (martys), from which our word "martyr" comes, means a person who testifies, a witness bearing testimony before the eyes of the world. The word has taken on the meaning of death for a cause only because of St. Stephen and all other Christian witnesses who have given their lives to testify to the truth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who appeared to eyewitnesses alive again after he had died on the cross for the sins of the whole world.

Why should such witness for Christ provoke a violent and hate-filled reaction? Remember what I said about Pharaoh and Herod, that their plots were devilish. I meant that quite literally. As St. John wrote: "And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness." (I John 5:19) The Apostle and Evangelist, John, explained his rather curious use of the expression, "the world." He tells us not to love the world or the things in the world, which he identifies as "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life." (John 2:15, 16) The definition that he gives to his own special use of this phrase, "the world," is explained simply in the prologue to his Gospel, that prologue that sets the double theme of his whole Gospel: The Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word. In that prologue, St. John says very simply: "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not." (John 1:10) This spiritual system that organizes and plans the chaos of the Fallen sons of Adam, is marked by this: They do not know the Word made flesh: That is, they do not know Jesus Christ. He could walk among them right now, and manifest his miracles, and they would not know him. Indeed, we see that they did not know him.

Not that his death was a tragedy; certainly not. He was no helpless victim, since he had power to call upon the Father for, as he said, "twelve legions of angels." (Matt. 26:53) Jesus was a hero, the ultimate hero, not a victim in the modern sense of the word. But, he was the one true sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; or as I shall say in the Communion Service this morning, with words that summarize much from the Epistle to the Hebrews and the First Epistle of St. John: "All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." He did not lose his life: He gave his life.

When he appeared to eyewitnesses after his resurrection, he was creating the certainty that his Church would need in all ages. And, those first martyrs had no fear of death, because they bore witness of the Living Christ who has conquered death, and shall destroy it when he comes again in glory. The martyr's crown is a crown of joy, and this does not turn our Christmas into a time of sorrow. No, not at all. But, it turns our Christmas season into a time of distinctly and decidedly Christian joy, a joy that the world cannot know. Whereas we must speak with the prophetic voice about evil, we do so to deliver those yet held captive by the world and its system that is based on not knowing the Lord. It is not because the martyr's crown can be a symbol of sorrow, since it is a sign of triumph and everlasting joy.

But, back to our question. How did the Holy Innocents qualify as martyrs? What turned their deaths into a triumph over the world, the flesh and the devil? The answer is very simple. They were associated with Jesus Christ himself. They were, in a sense, mistaken for him, or potentially for being him.

And, though not as Divine, but certainly as filled with charity and living a life that bears witness to the truth, we may indeed provoke the wrath of the world. I recall a bumper sticker that a friend of mine had on his car when I was in college (which was, I assure you, less than a hundred years ago). The bumper sticker said: "If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" If we provoke the wrath of this world by being like Christ, we become like the Holy Innocents. Yes, we may choose to be Christ's witnesses, unlike them. But, the issue that matters is never any one of us; the issue is Jesus Christ. To any degree that we may be identified with him, indeed, in terms of our love and our deeds mistaken for him, we are Christians. And, if we bear him witness, by life or by death, we do so as martyrs. For, it is about the Truth himself, our Lord Jesus Christ. May we all, in that proper sense, be mistaken for Christ. May there be enough evidence to convict us all, and with that let us continue the joy of our Christmas Feast this entire season.


Rev. Dr. Hassert said...

Excellent and touching.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I think that this addition was called for, since the term "mass grave" suggests bodies tossed in without regard for their identities: "...that is, a subterranean chamber with ossuaries of very small children who all died together." This was reported on ABC radio news a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,

Thanks for clarifying and giving the reference. It's important to feel the historical weight of this stuff.

Again, thanks for the excellent sermon.

St. Worm