Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation.
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
What a terrible story follows the birth of Jesus. From joy and wonder, angels and wise men we move to persecution and murder. Who would want to think of that when the Christmas tree is still green, the presents are still a novelty, and we still bask in the warm glow of good times with family and friends?
Perhaps that is why the Feast of Holy Innocents, which we celebrate today, is so completely different from what we would expect. Celebrated in many countries around the world, today is not a day of tears and mourning, but of fun and laughter. In many households today children will rule the roost. They will choose the food and drink, the music and the entertainment. In Spain and Hispanic countries like Mexico the day is much like April Fools Day and children will play tricks on their parents and other adults. It is miles away from the horror the Feast Day commemorates: the massacre of the young children of Bethlehem. But that shouldn’t surprise us. When something is too hard to face, sometimes the only way to deal with it is to turn it on its head.
Yet the massacre of the children of Bethlehem is part of the Christmas story too. At Christmas we celebrate God Emmanuel, God with us, entering into our reality, into all of it. But we also welcome the God whose reign will put an end to all pain and suffering. So today take a moment to think of the children whose lives are marked by violence and fear, the children who experience hunger and pain, the children who crave love but only encounter abuse. On this day of Holy Innocents may God comfort them in their suffering and may we do whatever we can to make their lives better. “This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive!”*
*(From ‘Star-Child, earth-Child’, a Christmas carol by Shirley Murray. Published in ‘Carol our Christmas, a book of New Zealand carols, The New Zealand Hymnbook Trust Inc, 1996)
bless all children who are suffering today.
Turn their tears to laughter,
and their fear to hope.
Be their helper in times of trouble
and surround them with your everlasting love.
Francis Brienen is the Deputy General Secretary (Mission) of the URC.