Throughout human history, those who grasp for power over others and who frantically seek to maintain that power live in a constant state of fear. After all, power is often illusory and easily slips through our fingers. Even the greatest of dictators, monarchs, and presidents have known how uncertain their power can be, which is why innocent lives are almost always sacrificed in the service of power.
The Mass reading for the Feast of Holy Innocents comes from the Gospel of Matthew 2:13-18 and demonstrates how illusory and blood-thirsty power can be:
“When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.”
It is in this reading that we learn of the first martyrs of the Faith: The boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding region two years old and under. Herod’s nefarious plot to kill the Christ-child was undone by the God who cannot be killed through human will to power. Instead, He will be put to death on a Tree in fulfillment of His designs for our salvation. A plan that Herod never would have understood or foreseen in his blind desire for power.
It is the innocent who suffer the most at the hands of those who seek power for power’s sake. The Fall has led human beings to grasp at power, no matter how little. When we seek to do so, however, there is always a cost. That cost may be the life of an unborn child, the elderly, the handicapped, the non-combatant, the poor, or any other group of people who are considered inconsequential; those groups without any power themselves.
Those who are fans of Lord of the Rings recognize this theme of grasping for power throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece. Power is seductive. It is pleasing to the eye. It’s difficult to turn away from the lure of power. The idea of being able to control our own lives and the lives of others is a great temptation. It is what we grapple with each day as we learn to die to self more and more in order to grow in true charity.
The ring of power that Sauron seeks to once more possess is engraved with an ancient Elvish language of Mordor that says: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” The ring of power is the inversion of charity. It is to require total submission to the one who wields the ring. Sauron who made the ring sought to enslave the peoples of Middle-earth. Love, on the other hand, is freely given and self-emptying. St. Paul says of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
Power seeks to enslave and to force the will of others in total obedience. Unbridled power leads to darkness while charity leads to light and life. It is impossible for the desire for worldly power and charity to co-exist within a person. Our Lord tells us Himself that we cannot serve two masters. There must be a relinquishment of self for true charity to exist within an individual. Power is a grasping at self, which allows the light of one’s conscience to grow dim as the desire for power fills the vacuum created in place of charity. In it’s stead, the desire to maintain control in all situations leads the individual to sacrifice whatever is necessary to preserve power, even innocent lives.
Herod — like all others in his place throughout history — deep down lives in a constant state of fear. He is devoid of love and so he is anxious, fearful, and paranoid. The desire for power can never leave the one seeking it in a state of peace because the individual knows how precarious the entire system is in reality. Those who constantly grasp at power live opposed to their very nature. We are meant to seek the good, the true, and the beautiful. We are made for happiness (beatitudo). We are made for love (caritas).
By its very nature, love is a relinquishment of power and control. It is a letting go of the selfish ego, pride, and vanity. Love is a movement outwards away from self. Seeking power is to turn inward in order to allow the ego to rule one’s life. When the ego gets wildly out of control, the fearful aspects of it take hold and a recourse to violence becomes almost inevitable as the desire for power grows. We seek to bind others to ourselves rather than give ourselves away in love to them.
We live in a culture predicated upon power. Our culture tells us that the individual sets truth. This relativistic system has led to the sacrifice of countless lives from the unborn to the elderly. While we pretend that we are more civilized than Herod, in reality, we simply commit barbarous acts behind closed doors, but the fearful grasp for power is still leading to the shedding of innocent blood.
Charity itself was born in Bethlehem. Herod’s response to the birth of the newborn King was one of fear and a clinging to power. While we may not be shedding the blood of innocents, we too have a choice to make between charity and our own selfish ego. The battle lines are drawn in each one of our hearts. Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Innocents remind us that we are at war against our Fallen selves. Let us ask the Christ child to fill us with ever greater charity so that by His grace we can relinquish those areas of our lives where we are grasping for power.