Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Fourth Day of Christmas 2021

The Massacre of the Innocents

"Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

 'A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.'
Matthew 2:16-18
Massacre of the Innocents by Léon Cogniet (1824)

There's a part of the Christmas story that we do not really talk about at all.  The massacre of the innocents.  After the Magis' visit, Herod becomes so enraged that he orders the execution of all male children in Bethlehem and its districts two and under.

Joseph is warned in a dream, so he takes Mary and Jesus and begins the flight to Egypt, where they will stay for the next several years.  And to the extent that we do mention it, this is generally where our discussion ends.

In doing so, we ignore a reality of the Christmas story.  That for the great joy it brings, it also includes great suffering.  A reminder of why the Christ child had to come.

Imagine the scene in Bethlehem.  Mothers scrambling to protect their infants.  Families torn apart by soldiers looking for such a child.  The chaos in the streets as they are going door to door.

The wailing of mothers' cries in the air.   Their anguish filling the streets.

Today, many scholars and historians question the historical accuracy of the account.  Josephus does not contain any mention of the event.  Modern biographers of Herod often dismiss the story as an invention, particularly given the comparison to Pharaoh's actions in Moses' story.  It became, then, the subject of liturgy and apocrypha.  Macrobius wrote in his Saturnalia, "When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son."  Byzantine liturgy estimates 14,000 victims, Syrian lists put the number at 64,000, and Coptic sources at 144,000.  Modern estimations think it could have been as small as a dozen or so.  There is thought that given the smaller number of infants potentially in the vicinity of Bethlehem at the time, it may not have warranted mention in Josephus' account.

Whatever the number, it remains a tragedy.

Artists through the ages have looked to capture the scene.  None have done as well as Cogniet has done above.  The other artists looked to capture the greater scene. The chaos, the massacre in total.  Leon Cogniet, a largely forgotten French artist, instead chose to focus on a single mother and child.  We still see the tragedy.  Another mother fleeing with two children.  A child dead on the ground.

But with the focus on the single mother and child, we feel what she is feeling.  The terror in her eyes as she stifles her child's cry.  Her eye's almost begging us for intervention.

For many, this still captures their modern Christmas.  This mother could be Afghani, Syrian, Yemeni, or Sudanese.  This mother could be Honduran in South Texas, her child being taken from her to be placed in a separate "detention facility."  Her being forced out of the country to a migrant tent city on the border "worse than Syrian refugee camps."

A single mother huddling in a cold, dark flat terrified of when her next meal will be.

We are called to remember them all.  At this season, yes, we are to remember the birth.  To remember the celebration.  Exceeding great joy.

But we are also called to remember the least of these.  This mother and her child on the streets of Bethlehem.

We are to remember that the coming of the Christ was to set in motion a revolution of love and justice that would eventually sweep away all tyrants and free all victims and end all wars.

"This Christmas, remember that the followers of the Christ are called not to side with empire, but to sit with the terrified, to comfort those who mourn, to join the meek and merciful and pure in heart. And to hunger and thirst for the righteousness only Jesus can bring."

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
"Bye bye, lully, lullay."

Coventry Carol

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