December 28. Not much of a date. It gets sandwiched between celebrations of Christmas and New Year, mostly part of the post-Christmas clean up and recovery, a date lost in the rush of the season.
But the 28th is part of a cluster of days that reminds us of the full impact of Christ's entry into our space and time. The day after Christmas is the feast of St. Stephen, the first adult martyr of the early church. The next day we commemorate St. John, apostle and evangelist, exiled to Patmos for being a troublemaker to both Jews and Romans.
Then the 28th, the feast day of The Holy Innocents, little children martyred for being children of Jesus' age.
Familiar story. Astrologers from Persia see some kind of celestial anomaly in the constellations they turn to for information about the Jews. It's big enough to signal the birth of a king, so they load the camels and travel to Jerusalem, to King Herod's palace. Surely the current king will know where to find the new king. With help from old legends the Magi find Jesus and honor him.
But when they return home without sharing Jesus' whereabouts with Herod, the mad and frightened king unleashes a slaughter of any children in and around Bethlehem who might be the same age as Jesus. Kill enough children and surely you will snare the object of your rage and fear. Children are expendable when it comes to the king retaining his grip on power.
And so there was a howl and shriek of utter pain and horror that sounded over the land. Herod rested in comfort that night while bereaved parents cradled the bodies of their dead children in their arms and wept, and wept...and wept still more.
We hear that same weeping for the holy innocent ones who are killed among us. They are the children killed in the artillery barrages and bombing runs in the Middle East as nations war over control of territory. Civilians are expendable, collateral damage in a war.
The innocent ones are the children in the schools targeted by the terrorists in our country. The children caught in the crossfire of street battles in our cities. The children abused and left to die. Unfortunate but inevitable deaths when we cannot control our rage and our weapons. Expendable as long as we lack the courage to act to end the slaughter. We prefer the comfort of inaction, and more of the innocents die.
Three hundred thirty-three thousand. That's the number of the holy innocents killed so far by covid-19. They are expendable, the necessary collateral damage resulting from those who seek to retain power, people for whom financial gains in the stock market are more important than millions of holy innocents.
The holy innocents are those who must be apart from their loved ones in the hospital, separated when death comes, faced with an empty seat at the festive gatherings. They are those who long for a touch, a hug, a shared word of parting. They cannot even hold the bodies of their loved ones as they grieve for them.
And then there are all those innocents who are part of the Body of Christ who must sacrifice in-person worship in order to stay safe. They wear their masks in order to protect others; they avoid gatherings to help stop the spread of the disease; they give up the shared song, and whisper or only sing inwardly to cut the risks. Those who feel the pain inflicted on them simply because they are the little ones loyal to Christ.
December 28, more than just another date on the calendar. It is a light that not only leads to remembering, but also a light that illumines so that we can see those innocents still among us.
In time, those who mourned for their children found comfort. The Christ wept with them and sanctified their tears and pain. "Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows," says Isaiah. It is in that holy sharing and bearing that we can begin to heal and find peace.
And all those who bear the sign of the baptismal cross on their brows are called to that same sharing and bearing. The Holy Innocents of all times and places ask only one thing of us: that we remember, that we are aware of them, that we put our hands to their crosses, and walk with them in the name of Christ.