Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

I love the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Why? Well…I am not sure, exactly; probably it is in part because it is also my daughter’s birthday.

The Holy Innocents are knows as
the "flowers of martyrdom".
Last night as I was praying vigils, though, I realized something I had not thought of before. And that is the tension between the celebration of the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, and the mourning of their horrible deaths at the hands of a tyrant.
Here is the 4th lesson from vigils, from a sermon of St. Augustine:

Dearly beloved brethren, today we keep the birthday of those children, who, as we are informed by the Gospel, were massacred by the savage King Herod. Therefore let earth rejoice with exceeding joy, for she is the mother of these heavenly soldiers, and of this numerous host. The love of the vile Herod could never have crowned these blessed ones as hath his hatred. For the Church testifieth by this holy solemnity, that whereas iniquity did specially abound against these little saints, so much the more were heavenly blessings poured out upon them.

They were massacred, but we rejoice; they are crowned by Herod’s hatred in a way his love could never have accomplished.

In the responsory, we focus more on the tragic circumstances of martyrdom:

R. The blood of thy saints have they shed like water round about Jerusalem.
* And there was none to bury them.
V. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the air, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.
R. And there was none to bury them.

In the 5th lesson, St. Augustine continues:

Blessed art thou, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, which hast suffered the cruelty of King Herod in the slaughter of thy children; who art found worthy to offer at once to God a whole white-robed army of guileless martyrs! Surely, it is well to keep their birthday, even that blessed birthday which gave them from earth to heaven, more blessed than the day that brought them out of their mother's womb. Scarcely had they entered on the life that now is, when they obtained that glorious life which is to come.

Those Holy Innocents have been found worthy! The event of their murder – their birth into Heaven – is more blessed than their birth on earth. But we acknowledge the evil done to them in the responsory:

R. These holy ones suffered for thy sake, O Lord take vengeance for them.
* For day by day they cry unto thee.
V. Avenge, O Lord, the blood of thy saints which is shed.
R. For day by day they cry unto thee.

Always in our Catholic life, I think, we should be thinking about the possiblity of physical martyrdom and the fact that our Faith is worth paying that price. But also, I think that as Catholics we should always be mindful of that tension between the tragedy and horror of the death of the body, which is of course linked to the possibility of eternal life in Heaven with God and all the saints.

It is a tension that our shepherds, sadly, seem to have forgotten to preach to us…

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

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