January 1, 2017
Medieval depictions of the final judgment often have a rather puzzling feature to them; somewhere toward the bottom of the scene is a container that looks like a cradle and in it a crowded group of little boys. They are, of course, the Holy Innocents. You recall the story: When Herod figures out that the Magi have returned home without returning to tell him where to find the ‘newborn king of the Jews’, he has all the little boys in Bethlehem murdered. With no more words than that, the New Testament reports one of the most cruel and insane acts of violence in the history of the world.
These little boys have long been taken up by the Church as the first harvest of Salvation; the unspeaking (infants) whose death proclaims the coming of Christ (that’s why Herod does what he does); the weakest of the weak who conquer suffering and death and so win through to life.
Without ever questioning that they have a place in heaven, I have, I must admit, wondered if it is not just a bit of rhetorical excess that makes us call them martyrs and saints and victors. I would not claim any special revelation for myself, but it was on their feast day this week past that I think I understood something of that puzzle.
I think that it was Peter, Paul and Mary – you remember them – who sang that ‘you have to teach a child to hate’; to think that someone or something or some cause is undeserving of human rights, deprived of human dignity and rightly subjected to inhuman treatment. The reason for this is easy to discern. The ability to think in terms of right and wrong or good and bad is something that matures in the human psyche only after infancy is past. Until then, the child’s ‘moral’ world is taken up summed up in terms of pleasure or pain.
Children cry and coo without wondering what they should do, without judging what someone else should have done, without thinking that they have or have not deserved this sensation. They know that there are things in the world that bring pain and things that bring pleasure, but these experiences are not freighted with judgments.
So, here are these little Bethlehemites (today they would be Palestinians) who are identified in Herod’s mind and by their own vital statistics as somehow connected to ‘the newborn King’. If they were to know this, they would not know whether this was a good thing or a bad; they would know only that it was so. They would not try to change it or change themselves.
Evil – even impending death – would in no way govern their decision. Because they could not of themselves and had not been taught by other do more than accept and – in a real sense, to love the world and its inhabitants – they lived and died for ‘goodness’ sake’.
This is the very essence of holiness. The saints’ only reaction to evil is mercy; never a return of evil. The saints’ only motive for acting is goodness to be achieved; never and evil to be repaid or punished or avoided.
When we forget how to hate we become saints.
Really and truly and forgetfully yours,