(Father Sirico is president of the Acton Institute. This article is a product of the Acton Institute www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 and is reprinted with permission.)
Our new awareness of human suffering and the reality of evil in our world calls us to a new understanding of the meaning of these holidays.
Lest Americans are tempted to believe our plight is unprecedented, we do well to recall that the first Christmas was not a time of earthly peace or prosperity. The Holy Land was desperately poor by any modern standard, the overweening Roman state was on the march, plotting an expansion with new decrees and new taxes. St. Luke's account of the birth of Jesus even begins by mentioning the imposition of taxes three times.
Despite these perilous times, the birth of the Savior led a multitude of angels to announce to the shepherds in the fields: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” They went to Bethlehem and found that spiritual peace in the birth of a child. But what followed this event was not earthly peace but a bloody search-and-destroy mission conducted by Herod, famous for his brutality and profligacy. His target was the infant Jesus.
Hearing of Herod's plans, the Wise Men and Holy Family fled. What was left behind in Bethlehem shocks us to this day: Herod's attempt to kill every male child under two years of age in Bethlehem and its vicinity. It was in this time that a terrifying prophecy from the Hebrew scriptures was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
How many died? The numbers vary widely. The Greek liturgy says 14,000 boys, the Syrians say 64,000, and various medieval authors claimed that 144,000 children were murdered. In any case, historians agree that more than 10,000 young children in all were slaughtered by the hand of Herod, all in an attempt to stamp out the life of that one child born of Mary in a manger.
Sometime during the fifth century, a day was instituted in the liturgical calendar that recognizes them as martyrs, baptized by blood: the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
History records these horrible scenes of ancient terror and bloodshed. The darkness, bloodshed and fear provide the starkest possible contrast with the glory of the birth of the Christ child. As Americans gathered around our trees and opened gifts, we didn't much think of these dark events. When we think of Christmas, we don't think of people fleeing oppressors or untold numbers of children being killed because of the wrath of one evil man. Instead we fix our eyes on the Glory of Christmas.
Just looking at the story apart from the spiritual dimension, we don't see joy but human suffering. In the same way, if we look at our own world without the eyes of faith, we see immense suffering: in the families of the victims of Sept. 11, in the fears that have swept across America and the world, in the economic dislocations that have occurred in the midst of recession.
When Americans look around our world today, we also see great evil, including madmen who have done us harm and wish to do us more. These are the Herods of our time, and they show no mercy. We must do our best to resist them and bring them to justice. But we must also remember that because God created the human person to make choices, and because some choose the wrong path, evil will always be in our midst. We can never completely escape tragedy in this world.
Unlike any time in memory, we face a challenge to find hope amid a great deal of despair. In the days following the 9-11 disaster, we have seen extraordinary acts of heroism and charity, in the dedication of the rescue workers and the outpouring of generosity by Americans. The event has drawn as closer as families, communities and as a nation.
“Audit tyrannus anxius” (“With terror doth the tyrant hear”) is an ancient hymn that honors the Holy Innocents who died. Permit me to share two stanzas:
“All hail! ye infant Martyr flowers / Cut off in life's first dawning hours: As rosebuds snapt in tempest strife, when Herod sought your Savior's life.
“You, tender flock of lambs, we sing / first victims slain for Christ your King: beside the very altar, gay with palms and crowns, ye seem to play.”
Thus do we sense that their deaths were not in vain, that indeed, reflecting on an eternal hope and our God who is just and merciful, it can be a source of strength and hope. The Christian tradition honors those innocents who died, while placing all hope in the life (and death) of a single child. I doubt that the meaning of it all can be understood apart from faith, just as the meaning of our times is more clearly evident from living a life of faith.
Let us make [Sunday's Epiphany] a time to reflect on the underlying moral and spiritual drama of the holidays, knowing that even in times of sadness, immense joy can be ours. Gloria in excelsis Deo.