by Michael D. O’Brien
There are moments when our confidence in the ultimate goodness of life is strong. There are other times when confidence is shaken. Who among us does not prefer the former state? When we are confident we feel assured that we are safe from harm; we proceed about our daily affairs without giving thought to the dangers of human existence. Anxiety, fear, and doubt are kept at a distance by the power of our wits, finances, and entertainments. Happiness is within our grasp; the future is more or less assured and we are at peace. Besides, family life is just too busy an affair to brood overmuch on the “what ifs.” Right?
It is true, of course, that we are ultimately quite safe, for God does hold us firmly and tenderly in his hands, and nothing but our own unbelief or sin can tear us out of them. But God did not promise to shield us perfectly from suffering. Indeed, if He had done so He would have deprived us of the opportunity to grow and to become more and more like his Son on the Cross –– and, it must be added, like his Son at the Resurrection. And so there is no hermetically sealed, sanitized, quarantined existence for us. It’s not all Cross and it’s not all Resurrection. He seems to want to give us as much of both as we can take. Why is that?
As I get older (and older and older) I see more clearly my childish desire for a safe and tidy universe in which to live my life comfortably (with token sacrifices and mini-trials of course!) But, no, God in his wisdom allows me to have seasons of uncannily converging troubles so that I can open my eyes to the deeper levels of unbelief hiding in the depths of my soul. I want life to be safe, you see. But it is not safe. It is never safe. Indeed, the dangers of human existence are inextricably twined in this world with astounding graces and blessings, and with a miraculous beauty. In short, the Lord of the universe calls his children to grow –– to grow in responsibility and in love –– to become more and more like Him.
It struck me the other day that whenever things are hard in my life, I am often tempted to wonder where divine providence has gone. As if in answer to those niggling question-resentments, I saw in my mind’s eye St. Joseph and Mother Mary, with the baby Jesus in her womb, making their way in winter from their home village across a rugged, cold countryside toward the village of Bethlehem to fill out forms for the Roman census. It was the worst possible time for a pregnant woman about to give birth. Surely God’s holy angels, who had been so active from the beginning of this child’s life, could have arranged a better situation for the delivery of the Son of God! But no, this family was not immune from the whims of an evil emperor, nor the overcrowding in Bethlehem, nor the poverty of a stable –– nor later the danger they faced from the murderous Herod, nor later still their years of exile in Egypt. What was God doing here? What does this tell us about how he interacts with all levels of our human life?
Could it be that awaiting us in paradise is something so far beyond our understanding and so wonderful that when we arrive there we will wear our wounds like glorious medals? It takes faith to see this truth and to keep living in the belief that it is the foundation of existence itself. Few have ever had unfailing sight in this regard, fewer still have lived it perfectly. All of us have felt in small or large ways the bitterness of the unjust blows which life does deliver, and most of us, I suspect, are driven to ask some fearful questions in response. This is our vulnerability –– it is perhaps like a broken bone, long ago healed but prone to ache in certain kinds of weather. The devil knows this. He has examined the old breaking point quite accurately and he probes it with a sharp sword at key moments, or he draws our gaze to it again and again until there are times when we can see nothing else, and the ache grows and grows until it swallows joy, blots out the sun, and wrings from us the cry, “Where is God? Where is God?”
Each year on the Feast of the Holy Innocents I feel a little ache of that kind. Of course, I am always thrilled anew at the deliverance of Joseph and Mary and I delight again in the drama of their escape. The Magi, the angels, the flight in the darkness into the land of exile. Once again God goes ahead of the devil and defeats his purposes. But still, each year I see the little dead bodies littered around the streets and I ask, “What about them?”
I like to close my eyes sometimes and put myself and my family back into scenes from the Gospels. For instance, into Bethlehem on that day. In my imagination I see the over-crowded city, so real I can almost reach out and touch it. I am one of the harrassed fathers at the end of a journey, overcome with numerous worries such as where will we sleep, what will we eat, will the littlest ones run off and get lost in the crowd etc., etc. I am silently enraged at the Roman soldiers; I brood over those Israelites who collaborate with them, resent my own people –– the vendors and hawkers and innkeepers who extract exorbitant prices from the poor. And I see myself rushing about anxiously trying to find shelter for our many children. I pray and I hope and fear and doubt. Are we financially well-off that year? Not likely. Did I call ahead to reserve a first class room at the very inn which turned the holy family away? Nope, not our style. More likely we find a stall in a stable. The children don’t like it. It smells. It’s cold. They begin to cry. Hey, kids, I don’t like it much either, but let’s make the best of it, eh? Let’s offer it up. Look at that tired couple over there at the other end of the stable. That lady’s expecting a baby. Quiet down, quiet down, you guys. Let that couple sleep; they look exhausted. Shhhh! Shhhh!
When my wife and children sink at last into uneasy sleep I lie awake staring at the embers of a dying fire, wondering if life is ever going to be normal. And I ask, where is stability, where is happiness, where is sanctuary? And, most painful of all, “Where is God?” It is a heartless age. So much that was once great and good seems lost now; there’s so much defeat all around us. My nation and my faith and my home no longer seem like my own. I am a stranger in a strange land, but the strangest thing of all is that I was born and raised here.
So, at this moment in a very dark night, perhaps I lose courage. I may even cease to pray. Is this the night when a thousand guardian angels flood the village, vainly attempting to rouse each and every parent to vigilance? Is this the night when we are just too tired, too angry, too discouraged to hear? Or too anaesthetized by long habits of pleasure and distraction? Is this the night when an angel is sent from Heaven to warn me that my children are in danger? When he tries to wake me from my fitful sleep or speak to me in a dream, can I any longer hear his voice? Or, suppose I am still awake, staring at the blackness when he comes –– does my anxiety and rage drown out his inner promptings? Is my soul in such turmoil that I simply refuse to believe, because my mind is churning with thoughts such as: “I’m on my own; I’m alone here with all these burdens and where is my God? Where is help? Where is help?” And I cannot hear anything because I am too full of the noise of my fear.
This is perfect weather for Herod. Darkness covers the hearts of his subjects. Darkness covers his malice. Darkness will even cover his most abominable acts. Darkness is in his thoughts: If it is true that a little king is to arise and usurp the Herodian line, it is equally true that he, Herod, has power and also the cleverness to use this power to his advantage. Herod believes that there is no God, for heaven is silent. It never speaks. He believes that the sword determines the fate of the world. Little princes can spring up all over the place, if they like, but he will know what to do with them. After all, they would only succeed in bringing down the wrath of the Romans upon the whole people. It is kings like himself who understand the real good of the people. It is unfortunate, he thinks, but far better that a few children should die than a whole nation be destroyed. If a few innocents must fall as collateral damage, it is, after all, in the best interests of the People. Besides, the people are too ignorant to grasp that it’s for their own good. “Sometimes,” Herod nods sagely to himself, “sometimes, the people must be saved from themselves.”
And so the blood of many children flows in the village of David and Rachel, in the village of the messiah. And the prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled:
Sobbing and loudly lamenting:
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted
because they were no more.
Every year on this feast-day I ask myself if the blood of my children would have flowed with the blood of the holy innocents. Would their last little screams echo in my ears forever? Would my own voice and the voice of my wife have been mingled with the cries of the grieving parents of Bethlehem? Would a voice be heard in the suburbs and the shopping malls, sobbing and loudly lamenting –– our own cry, disconnected, weeping for our children because they are no more? And when the soldiers wipe their swords and go home and the rulers go back to their affairs of state, and when in the world of commerce it is business as usual, would we just stand there with holes in our hearts, bleeding from an incurable wound.
And what would be my reaction? To blame myself? To hate the oppressors? To hate life itself because death appears once again to be victorious? To blame God? Would I have bitterly said to the silent skies, over and over, “Where were You? Why did You not save us?”
What is God’s reply?
Thirty-three years later we hear it: The mother of Jesus stands beneath the Cross. Darkness covers the earth. Her son’s death-cry echoes across the mount, splits the sky and the city and penetrates the heavens and to the depths of hell. All of creation is shaken. Time slows, then appears to stop but the sound goes on and on. It tears through minds and hearts like an unending wail. From the depths of memory Mary hears interiorly the sound of a newborn baby crying out in the night, for milk, for warmth, for love. These cries mix together with the deep agonized voice of the dying man, and they become one sound in her heart –– this is the sword, and it pierces her through and through.
When he is dead there is only silence. No more voices, no birds, no thunder, no jeering laughter, no cries, no wind. Only silence. She does not weep at this moment. It is possible only to stare into the total blackness, feeling nothing but the incurable wound in her heart. This is the pain too deep for utterance, the agony too cruel for sound.
Later she weeps. When they take the lacerated body down and put its stiff, distorted limbs into her lap she sees the baby she once held in her arms. He had been created for love and now he lies here again, covered with the filth of the world, battered by its malice, torn into pieces by its diseased soul. Then, through the gash in her heart, all the anguish of mothers pours out and the night is filled with terrible cries. Are they audible to human ears? I do not know. But they are cries like no other in the history of mankind, before or to come. The angel had rescued her and Joseph and the child from the slaughter of the innocents. Now, at last, she too is called to weep the unbearable tears of Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more.
If we Christian people rejoice on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, it is because God answered us. He says, “When the worst happens, you are not alone. I am with you. I suffer with you and within you, and even beyond what you could ever suffer. I have known absolute abandonment and horror. The heart of God was pierced. The heart of my mother too was pierced and she felt all that you can feel. She holds you now, just as she once held my body on Calvary.”
Satan, that old master of illusions and father of lies, thrust his sword hard, hard, into the hearts of Jesus and Mary. It was his major gamble, his great effort to spread the belief that darkness triumphs utterly over everything. But he could not prevent the dawn. He killed a son of God and the Son of God rose up again on the third day and turned absolute defeat into heaven’s victory. Satan killed some children through a corrupt, proud king and ten thousand times ten thousand children rose up believing in their place. If, in our era he is permitted for a brief period to slaughter many children through the instrument of deluded parents and proud or cowardly legislators and heartless technicians, his time is short and his last gamble will likewise be defeated. For every life that he destroys, ten thousand times ten thousand souls will rise up to praise the victory of God. It is for this reason that we celebrate a “feast” of the slaughter of innocents. For in eternity all our defeats will be revealed as victories and our incurable wounds will be healed, and we will rejoice forever with the Lamb who was slain.