The choice of readings for today’s Mass perplexed me. December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, as recounted in Matthew 2:13-18. It’s a grim feast that comes three days after Christmas every year.
On the day we remember the Bethlehem boys aged two-and-under slaughtered by Herod in an unhinged, prophylactic power grab, the Church pairs that account with Psalm 124, beginning with these words:
Had not the LORD been with us,
when people rose against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
for their fury blazed against us.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us.
How is a psalm praising God for rescue appropriate on the day we remember murdered children? The Matthew account itself cites Jeremiah’s agonizing description of “Rachel weeping for her children,” refusing to be consoled. No wonder, if this is the thin consolation offered: that someone else’s child was saved. Mary and Joseph’s child, yes, but still a nightmare to the grieving parents.
The psalm smacks us right up against theodicy and the problem of evil. “Had not the LORD been with us . . .” What does that imply? Was God not with the toddlers of Bethlehem? How do we praise God for rescue (which we should, if rescued) without implying that those who perished were somehow abandoned, unworthy?
There’s a song called “I Know Something About God’s Grace” whose theology drives me batty. The lyrics begin: I know something about God’s grace; I know something about God’s amazing grace.” So far, so good; then it runs off the rails. “It could have been me with no food to eat; it could have been me with no place to sleep, if not for the grace of God.” I know it’s a musical riff on the common expression “There but for the grace of God . . . ” And yet . . . those guys sleeping on the steam vents in downtown Philly—are they devoid of grace? Or are they wrapped in it?
Maybe the problem is with our casual use of the word “grace.” Do we believe that God’s unmerited favor comes in the form of this-worldly bonuses like a Christian comp & benefits package? Or is grace more interior, like a spiritual attitude adjustment? OR is grace what holds us up every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not?
Today is not the day to figure that out. Today is the day to admit that our warm language around grace and blessing leaves a lot of people out in the cold. Today is the day to figure out how to be a touch of grace for someone else. Today is the day to stand with the innocents (and the not so innocents) who are in the process of being swallowed alive or otherwise engulfed by the storms of life.
That’s how we honor the Holy Innocents—today and every day.
P.S. If you are similarly intrigued by these questions, I highly recommend an intense little book by Brother Joe Hoover, SJ called O Death Where Is Thy Sting (see my Goodreads review here), as well as the books, blog posts, and podcasts of Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved).