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The Holy Innocents
(entered heaven around the year 0)
Your note moved me deeply. It reminded of that phrase St Paul attributes to Our Lord: “It is more joyful to give than to receive.” Truly, you and your family received much more than you gave to the orphans and young, single mothers you visited after Christmas. Doesn’t it make a difference when you actually MEET the person you’re trying to help? That’s what Christ did by becoming one of us.
But you also bring up a question that deserves answering. You wonder why God allows so much suffering. Those innocent people – especially the children – suffering under the harsh hand of poverty; why does God permit it? We know he is all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something about it?
It’s a question that I almost always find myself asking on today’s Feast, when the whole Church commemorates the Holy Innocents. Of course, you remember who they were. When Jesus was born, wise men came from the east wanting to worship him, to acknowledge him as the promised King of the Jews and give him their allegiance. But when they got to Jerusalem the star they had been following disappeared. They had to ask for directions. Being of noble blood themselves, they had no qualms about approaching the King of Palestine at the time, Herod the Great, and asking him where the newborn King of the Jews could be found. Of course, Herod had no idea that Jesus had been born, and neither did the people of Jerusalem. So everyone was stirred into a frenzy. Herod consulted the experts and divined that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, so he sent the wise men there, instructing them to let him know when they found the new king, so Herod too could come and do him homage (so he said). The wise men went to Bethlehem, their star reappeared, they found Jesus with Mary, worshipped him (filled with great joy, the Bible tells us), but didn’t tell Herod. They were warned in a dream not to, and so they surreptitiously returned home.
Herod was furious, not only because they had dared to disobey him (that’s painful for a man so proud and so vain), but because the supposed “king” (Jesus) was still at large. That threatened him. He wanted the kingship for himself and his family; messianic figures sent by God to save the Chosen People had no place in his agenda. So, judging from the info the wise men had given him regarding the star’s first appearance, he gauged that Jesus had been born no earlier than two years previously. With that, he sent his henchman to Bethlehem with instructions to search out all baby boys less than two years old and kill them. That, he surmised, would rid the land of the prophetic usurper. His orders were carried out (Jesus was saved, however, because Joseph got some instructions of his own in a dream, and he took Jesus and Mary to safety in Egypt, just as the original Joseph had done with his “holy” family).
And here we are today, celebrating these massacred babies as the Holy Innocents, martyrs, killed for Christ’s sake. The Liturgy even says, “Father, the Holy Innocents offered you praise by the death they suffered for Christ.” Now, how does that work? An evil man (Herod) commits a horrendous deed, and according to the Church this resounds to the glory of God. At first glance, it seems hard to believe. But in truth, it’s quite simple. They suffered for Christ; in other words, the evil was directed at Christ, and it fell upon them. Because of this, God will certainly give them a share in his heavenly glory. All evil, ultimately, is directed against Christ – its source is the devil, and the devil is in rebellion against God. Therefore, when any innocents suffer because of the forces of evil (and evil is always, some way or another, at the source of suffering), they too are taking upon themselves blows meant for Christ. And so we entrust them to God’s mercy.
In other words, God’s answer to the question of why he permits the innocent to suffer is Christ. He sent Christ, and Christ, in his own flesh, redeemed suffering, he made it a path to salvation, by taking it upon himself. That’s why saints don’t respond to injustice with violence; they respond with charity, with love – they share their suffering neighbor’s burden, just as Christ shared ours. And just as you did with the people you visited after Christmas.
I know, these “ideas” and “explanations” don’t take the pain away from the suffering, but they do wrap it up in a bigger package, a package full of meaning and destined for heaven. The only way to understand it completely, so the Church teaches us, is to love Christ and our neighbors more intensely. If that’s the case, you’ll be explaining it all much more completely to me in no time.
Your loving uncle,