"Why?" Is Definitely the Question
Merry Christmas! The traditions of the Church around this time feel positively utopian, don’t they? Throughout Advent, we trace the story of God’s people. We recite the O Antiphons. We celebrate the birth of Christ. Everything leading to Christmas tells of a coming peace; that God makes all things new, fells all empires, rights all injustices in time.
And then comes the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
Some people find a commemoration of the slaughtered children of Bethlehem too macabre for Christmastide. It’s too violent, too ugly, too unpleasant to sit with while we’re supposed to be feasting for nearly a fortnight. It’s one of the ugliest stories in Scripture. So why do we celebrate it in the life of the Church? “Why?” is definitely the question.
“Why?” was likely the desperate sob of the mothers of Bethlehem.
“Why?” was likely the panicked question of Mary and Joseph as they fled to Egypt.
“Why?” is still the cry of those who suffer as they come to terms with hatred and illness and violence and injustice reaching into their lives and scattering everything they thought they knew.
During my decade as a lay minister, I often sat with people asking “Why?” as they grappled with unimaginable pain. I could never answer why someone’s mother died, or why they were sexually assaulted, or a million other pains—those answers are God’s alone. Likewise, I cannot answer why so many innocent children in Bethlehem died at the hands of one power-hungry despot. But I can think of a few reasons why we would honor such an ugly, tragic story in the liturgical life of the Church.
I think we celebrate this Feast because it’s important. It’s important that we see how desperate Herod was to keep his power, lest we forget that power always needs to live alongside justice. It’s important that we know the Holy Family experienced the absolute terror of feeling their child so close to death, just like we do every time another school shooting splashes across the news. It’s important that we remember that the Holy Family were refugees, relying on luck and grace and the kindness of strangers to keep their son safe, so that we know to treat refugees as if they were Mary or Joseph or Jesus.
I think we celebrate this Feast because it’s honest. There are times when life is completely unfair and all we can do, like the mothers of Bethlehem, is look to the sky and scream, “Why?” This isn’t new. God doesn’t shy from our grief-filled rage.
I think we celebrate this Feast because, at its core, Christmas is a feast of unpleasant tensions and of God facing the ugliness of reality. A virgin gives birth. A king is born among animals. “The Lion will lay down with the Lamb…”, but first we have this story where the hero ends up crucified. Christmas commemorates the time when God stepped down from glory and chose to live in a world where tyrants murder babies when they think their power is being threatened—all so God could make that world right again.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a heavy, difficult commemoration—and we should observe it precisely because it is heavy and difficult. Especially this year, when over 800,000 seats around family tables in the US are empty for the first or second year. Amid this long Holy Night, it’s okay to look at the realities of death and suffering; and also to know that those realities are precisely why God took on flesh in the first place.