Sunday, December 30, 2012
When our church tried rightly to seek God in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, we at Auburn’s Episcopal Church took notice of a rarely used hymn in our Hymnal. It is rarely used because we rarely celebrate with hymns the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28. On Sunday, December 16, we learned together a hymn for the Innocents.
The “Holy Innocents” are those tiny boys of Bethlehem who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, were killed by King Herod’s troops when he was trying to destroy a single baby who was said by certain “wise men from the East” to be his rival for the title “King of the Jews.” The Church has long marked a day in their honor and has seen them as a foretaste of the many Christian martyrs to come. That is, they gave their lives for Christ, in a way, even though they never knew him and did not—could not—confess him as Lord and Savior. Although Matthew suggests that the slaughter occurred as long as two years after Jesus was born (all boys two and under were targeted) the sensible placement for such an observance is near to the celebration of Jesus’ birth itself.
One better known carol taking up this theme is the Coventry Carol from the 15th century with its familiar “Bye-bye, lully, lullay” refrain in a sad, minor key. Its old-fashioned English, however, is almost impenetrable today as in stanza 3: That woe is me, poor child for thee! And every morn and day, for thy parting nor say nor sing bye-bye, lully lullay. Moving, yes, but quite opaque.
But across the page was a text by the 20th century Englishwoman, Rosamond E. Herklots, that began, In Bethlehem a newborn boy was hailed with songs of praise and joy. That is how nearly every newborn is welcomed into this world: praise, joy, congratulations and cigars handed out by the father. The appearance of a pure child as human as we are yet so innocent of wrong is overpoweringly delightful. Herklots immediately introduces the world’s evil into this picture of peace when her first stanza finishes, Then warning came of danger near: King Herod’s troops would soon appear.
Weapons of destruction aimed at small children are no new development in human history. Herod was a brilliant administrator who could doubtless be classified as mentally ill. He is known to have murdered his own sons, jealous of them. Sickness, evil and power are not categories tightly sealed from each other. Often they mix together in a terrifying stew, as in Bethlehem, as in Newtown. History overflows with examples.
Herklots’ second stanza shows the infant Jesus escaping this terror. It also records the dumb cry of parents like that etched in the photos from December 14: The soldiers sought the child in vain: not yet was he to share our pain. But down the ages rings the cry of those who saw their children die.
She may have been thinking of the World Wars (the hymn was written in the 1960’s) in writing the third stanza, but it sounds as though it was penned just for Connecticut this year: Still rage the fires of hate today, and innocents the price must pay, while aching hearts in every land cry out, ‘We cannot understand!’
The earliest parent-interview to surface from Newtown was that of Mr. Robert Parker. He spoke of his 6-year old daughter’s cards of comfort she would make when others were sad. She was kind, he said, “not because of any parenting that my wife and I could have done, but because those are the gifts that were given to her by her heavenly Father.”
When this earthly father acknowledges in the face of searing grief his daughter’s heavenly Father, we see the consolations of Christmas in bold colors. The mystery child of ancient Bethlehem that raised such irrational fury in wicked Herod was guarded by his earthly father. Even more mysteriously, that child’s heavenly Father gave Jesus gifts that led him to a death from which Joseph could not protect him.
Lord Jesus, through our night of loss shines out the wonder of your cross, the love that cannot cease to bear our human anguish everywhere. Robert Parker tenderly addressed the family of the murderer, Adam Lanza, saying “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you.” A bit of his daughter’s universal kindness seems to be given also to him. Human anguish everywhere. What can heal it all but universal love?
May that great love our lives control and conquer hate in every soul, till, pledged to build and not destroy, we share your pain and find your joy.