I think today’s collect gets it right: “Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims.” Today we remember the HolyInnocents—specifically all those children “in and around Bethlehem” who were killed by King Herod after he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. I think the real heart of this celebration is and must be innocents in all places and times.
If we restrict our remembrance to those babies killed by Herod, we find ourselves focused on a terrible consequence of our savior’s birth: had Jesus not been born, that slaughter would not have happened. While I remain firmly convinced that the “what if” question is futile, I still don’t like thinking about it from that angle. How many children must die in order for salvation to come to the whole world? Sure, we’re not saying that the Holy Innocents were part of God’s grand plan, but… Well, what are we saying?
Actually, the slaughter of Bethlehem’s holy innocents is one of those events that lives out in biblical history in a way it may not have lived out in historical history. I haven’t watched any A&E specials on this in a while, but I think I remember that this is one of those events that we have no record of except in the bible. And the end line of today’s gospel reading (Matthew 2:13-18), where it specifically ties this event to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, suggests that this narrative has more to do with making Old and New Testaments line up. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really matter.
This passage is about evil rising up against good and doing terrible, almost unspeakable things to innocent lives. And that happens all the time. We live in a world where tragedy (the real sort) befalls individuals and communities. In an interview last week, Angelina Jolie was speaking about her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which depicts the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in 1995, and she mentioned that, after the holocaust of WWII, we decided not to let these things happen anymore, but, of course, they do happen.
So what is God’s message of hope to a world struck by tragedy of this level? What can God say to a world that has streets stained with the blood of innocents? In today’s lessons, I find hope in the passage from Revelation (21:1-7).
People often conjecture about what heaven will be like—what it will look like, who will be there, and what we will do once we get there. Usually, those imaginations provide limited spiritual value. In today’s passage from Revelation, God declares that he will make all things new. And sometimes that’s the only place to start—by starting over. When a tragedy as real as the death of an innocent hits a family or a community, there is no such thing as patching that wound. When thousands of innocent lives are lost at the hands of brutal oppressors, one cannot simply make it all better. The only kind of redemption that addresses that kind of wrong is newness. A clean start. And the only source of that hope is God.
When our brokenness is as great as it is in those terrible moments, we can only turn to God and trust that one day he will make it new. That means that we won’t find true healing in this lifetime, and I think that’s appropriate. We can’t expect to “get over” something as horrible as an innocent’s death. We can only ride out this lifetime with our sight firmly fixed on the future—a new future, a place and time when all things will be made new.