A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Holy Innocents – 28 December

By Fr Gerard Whiteford SM

Our liturgy throws us another curve ball today – we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents, recalling the young killed on the order of Herod (Matthew 2: 13 – 23). The nuisance is that chronologically this happens after the visit of the Magi, which we celebrate on 8 January!!

If you still have any Christmas cards you received this year nearby you, take a look at them. Many will have a cover-piece of a very young, demur, spotless Virgin Mary and a slightly older (ageing?) Joseph nearby, each gazing lovingly at a cleanly wrapped new born baby placed in a manger. The Collins Dictionary describes a manger as “a low open container which cows, horses, and other animals feed from when indoors.” Not the nicest of places to lay a newly born baby! The place no doubt had that earthy animal smell of animal sweat mixed with urine and possibly faeces (it was winter after all and many of the cattle were kept indoors). 

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Orazio  Gentileschi (1563–1639), the National Gallery, London.

From the beginning, Christian art has done its level best to disown the very reality of the Incarnation – the Word was made flesh – yes, but not our flesh! We are determined to leave this Emmanuel as God. Today’s feast, which our liturgy calls the Holy Innocents, calls us back to reality! Jesus was born at a time of political turmoil. Herod the Great ruled as ‘King of the Jews’ under Roman authority for thirty-three years, from 37–4 BC. Herod was a despot. He thought nothing of killing members of his own family, including his wife, when he suspected them of scheming against him. Herod, when dying, gave orders that leading citizens of Jericho be slaughtered so that people would be weeping at his funeral. This Herod would not bat an eyelid at the thought of “dispatching people to kill all the boys in Bethlehem, and it surrounding districts, from two years old and under, according to the time the Magi had told him” (Mt 2: 16).

Flight into Egypt, by Henry Ossawa Tanner in the Met Museum, New York City.

Joseph, Mary and their new-born Son are on the run – to save their skins! They are travelling by night, dangerous, but not uncommon among refugees. The cover of darkness offers them some protection, however not guaranteed safe travel. Darkness also provides cover for the ‘baddies’ – robbers and others who wish you harm. This is the world Jesus is born into – the Word certainly has become flesh!

Our responsibility as maturing Christian women and men is not to rescue Jesus from this reality, rather, I suggest, it is to live, to journey with him. Ignatius of Loyola had a method of prayer he called ‘imaginative prayer’ in which he invites the individual who is contemplating the Gospel passage, to ‘enter into’ the scene. In the illustration by Ossawa Tanner, become the one holding the light as the Family journey (of course the nuisance is if you hold the light you are walking somewhat in the dark!) Or, if you are very brave you might become the donkey (now that is getting up close and personal!)

Today we might spend time considering all those, who for whatever reason, are fleeing their homes because of abuse, despotic rule, aggression, the misuse of power. 

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