Friday, December 28, 2007

Extracts concerning the Holy Innocents

That pious Anglican layman, Robert Nelson, writing in 1703, thus discoursed upon the Holy Innocents (Nelson's Festivals and Fasts, 1841 ed., 87ff) catechetically, solving with the wisdom of those well read in the Fathers (for example, St John Chrysostom, in his 9th homily on st Matthew's Gospel) and positive doctors what many find hard to understand regarding the cruel sufferings endured by the infants slain for Christ:

Q.  For what reason may we suppose that God permitted the destruction of so many children in Bethlehem?

A.  It doth not become us to nicely to inquire into the proceedings of Infinite Wisdom, all whose actions are governed by the highest reason; but, among several thoughts that offer themselves, we may consider whether the infidelity of the Bethlehemites, after such sufficient means afforded for their conviction, might not draw upon them so severe a punishment.  They not only gave no reception to the Virgin Mary, big with child, and of the house of David; but they neither owned nor worshipped our Saviour at his birth.  The message of the shepherds and their great joy, the arrival of the wise men from the East, and their offerings, had no effectual influence upon them.  And it is not unusual with God to visit the sins of the fathers upon their children; especially since the children were made instruments of God's glory, and not only delivered from the miseries of life and the corruption of their ancestors, but were crowned with the reward of martyrdom.

Q.  What may we learn from the observation of this festival?

A.  That religion is but too often used as an instrument to serve ambitions and worldly designs; which should make good men cautious how they combine with men of that temper in the measures they take to promote it.  That afflictions are not always arguments of guilt, since innocent children were made a sacrifice to the ambition of a cruel tyrant.  That they are sometimes tokens of God's favour, and that many a man has owed his happiness to his sufferings.  That we ought to be ready to part with what is so dear to us, as our own children, whenever they may become instruments of God's glory.  That we ought not to fear the cruelty nor policy of the greatest tyrant, who can never hurt us without God's permission.  That what oppressions soever innocence meets with from the hands of wicked men, is for the good of those that suffer it.  That the conduct of those parents, who neglect the education and instruction of their children in Christian and virtuous principles, exceeds the cruelty of Herod; he only deprived them of life, but such expose them to eternal death.  That to be true disciples of Christ, we must become as little children in the frame and temper of our minds, without which we cannot 'enter into the kingdom of heaven.' [Matt. xviii. 3.] 

Nelson goes on later to quote his version of the BCP collect, itself derived from and expanding on the Catholic, Latin oration, and I give the latter two here (such a pity that Cranmer, tho' a gifted translator, was an arch-heretic):

O Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths; Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Deus, cujus hodierna die præconium Innocentes Martyres non loquendo, sed moriendo confessi sunt: omnia in nobis vitiorum mala mortifica; ut fidem tuam, quam lingua nostra loquitur, etiam moribus vita fateatur.  Per Christum Dominum nostrum.  R/.  Amen.

And to turn to a more modern, yet more than equally traditional author (himself having made the final leap from C. of E. to R. C., unlike Nelson despite his good Catholic wife), John Saward, in his book Redeemer in the Womb, writes as follows (p. 141), quoting from Caryll Houselander's The Passion of the Infant Christ, when treating of that appalling modern twist to the Massacre of the Innocents, unimaginable to Nelson:

[In] the anti-child mind of the modern world [,] Herod is still at his bloody work.

'Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any child might be Christ!  The fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact in the modern world.  Any child might be Christ; yes, and Herod in his attempt to destroy that one Child, to eradicate the threat of the Infant from his nation, baptized a host of children in their own blood and made a legion of little "Christs", who should come unseen with heavenly weapons, flocking to the tattered and blood-soaked standard of innocence through all the ages of mankind.'

In the four decades since Caryll's death, Herod's fear has taken possession of whole cultures.  In the 1960s and 70s a new massacre of the innocents was decreed, not this time by a Palestinian  potentate, but by the parliaments of a hundred 'civilized' lands.  Unborn children have been slaughtered in their millions, their torn bodies incinerated or thrown out with the garbage.  Their placentas are used to make face cream for the rich.

Caryll Houselander understood well why the child is hated by Satan and his earthly hirelings.  'Any child might be Christ!'  In becoming a child, God the Son united himself to every child.  Every little one of the human family is a reminder of the Infant God, of the divine humility the demons so despise.  Every child preaches the Gospel just by being what he is.  He embodies the simplicity needed for entry into Heaven (cf. Mt 18:3).  He calls his parents out of self-absorption into self-giving.  (That is one of the reasons husband and wife cannot be fully open to each other in sexual love if they are not open to life.)

Truly today we "out-Herod Herod", considering the vast multitudes "untimely ripp'd"; and unlike the Nazis, we do not bother to hide our extermination camps, but have them right in our towns and cities.

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