The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Our Christian journey is shaped by the Church’s worship in a manner far deeper than its ceremonial features, such as the color of the vestments or the music associated with a particular season. For as the prayers, readings, and feast days of the liturgy circle back around year after year they present themselves afresh, enabling us to rediscover their meaning and receive new graces. This year, and though it has now been a few days since, I find that I am still consumed by thoughts of the Holy Innocents, those baby boys who gave their life shortly after the original Christmas.

Wholly innocent

The feast of the Holy Innocents commonly puts before us a few basic truths. For starters, there is the fundamental ­reality that they shed their blood for Jesus. In Saint Augustine’s words, these tiny saints are the flores martyrum, the “first buds of martyrdom.” Accordingly, they call our attention to the all-surpassing worth of being united to Jesus Christ—greater indeed than the highest natural goods. Additionally, the Holy Innocents, who by tradition are the patrons of babies and foundlings, encourage us to promote a culture of life that protects the unborn and the vulnerable. Here in New York City, for instance, there are prayers for this ­intention on that day, notably in a church dedicated to the Holy Innocents. Finally, each December 28 we are prompted to consider the Gospel’s reference to Rachel weeping for her children (Mt 2:18; cf. Jer 31:15), which expresses the longing of the people of Israel for the end of the Babylonian exile. We are in turn made hopeful, amidst our own sorrows and as we endure our earthly exile, that we will be brought safely home to the holy city, the new Jerusalem, where every tear will be wiped away.

Besides these important aspects of the feast of the Holy Innocents, however, I have been moved this year to ponder the implications and meaning of their innocence, specifically.

First, there is that basic sense of “not guilty,” for as infants they could not yet have committed any sinful acts (and, furthermore, can be said to have been washed of original sin by their “baptism in blood”). But another layer to the word “innocent” is, to quote one dictionary, “without experience or knowledge of.” And this too applies to the Holy Innocents, who in fact progressed to their death uncomprehendingly, or unknowingly, being so young. This does not, to be sure, reduce the authenticity of their martyrdom, for they were truly killed for the sake of Christ. But in the divine plan for their salvation, the Holy Innocents attained that perfect form of Christian witness in utter simplicity and in silence, and without complaint.

I do not mean to suggest they did not cry out in pain as they were being killed, for there is nothing about innocence that means invulnerable, unfeeling, or that suffering isn’t painful. But is it not moving to realize that due to their youth the Holy Innocents would have gone to their martyrdom without the temptation to question God over the cross that had come into their lives? Not for a single moment did the Holy Innocents doubt his goodness or indulge in any self-pity; they never suffered any sense of disappointment or a feeling of indignity at being denied the fulfillment of their own plans. The Holy Innocents did not live years, weeks, or even a single day comparing their present trials with the way they had imagined their life should go.

For our part, do we not invariably try to tell ourselves it is a noble thing we ask of God when we insist that he satisfy the expectations and plans we have for ourselves? Isn’t it always “in his interest,” so to speak, when we are demanding something of the Lord? As if to say: “You know, Lord, I could much better serve your Kingdom if you would allow me to do it in the way I see best, if you would be so kind as to remove this obstacle, this person and his faults, this challenge or cross from me. How am I supposed to become a great saint if you keep sending me all these trials?”

The Holy Innocents could do none of that. They were not preoccupied with what they felt was due to them, or all the ways they would have preferred to serve God and become saints. They could not say, “Lord, this is not really the kind of saint I expected to be, not quite the form of holiness I had in mind. See, I had more in mind a saintliness that is recognized and affirmed by all around me; a sanctity that would be entirely free of opposition and misunderstanding, that would allow me to bask in the sweet feeling of holiness without being radically stripped of everything but you.” (The problem, of course—as I often have to remind myself—is that I am not aware of any real saints who fit that description.)

Innocent as a lamb

We are all long past the precise innocence enjoyed by the Holy Innocents. But I repeat: each feast and each saint provide the graces for us to share in their sanctity. Each Mass bathes us in the expiatory blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, that we heard about in the day’s first reading. So as we venture out into this new year, we can rely on the Holy Innocents to help us, whatever our vocation, to submit bravely, confidently, and peacefully to God’s redemptive plan for our life—and to embrace the actual form of the cross he will send us for our salvation and his glory.