It happened that we’d scheduled our Christmas tree trimming for Saturday, the day after the Connecticut shootings. I wasn’t at all in the mood. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever experienced this festive event as a leaden and depressing chore. Thinking that some reflective Christmas music might help, I put on a CD of a Christmas Mass, then dug with a grimace into the big box of frosted balls and sequined kitty-cats. It wasn’t until the choir sang the Coventry Carol that I stopped to listen.
In case you don’t know it, the plaintive song tells the story of the flight into Egypt by Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus in advance of King Herod’s army. Fearing the birth of a rival for his kingship, Herod sent out his troops to slaughter all boys under the age of two:
Herod the king in his raging/chargèd he has this day
his men of might, in his own sight
all young children to slay.
The lyrics stopped me cold. I hadn’t expected anything quite so pointed and so resonant, a long shadow cast from ancient times to fall upon our own. I had forgotten that Christianity commemorates those Holy Innocents (as the slain children are called) as martyrs, and it chilled me, that their long-ago suffering found its terrible echo in the twenty lost children of Newtown, Connecticut. Yet whether or not you’re a person of faith, the atrocity told in Matthew’s gospel gives no special insight into our own slaughter of innocents, other than the fact of our sad human state. Part of God’s unfathomable plan? What a sick idea. Someone with a gun did this and lax laws let it happen. It has nothing to do with God.
Carols and liturgical works tell a Christmas story that offers us both light and darkness, birth foreshadowing the image of the Cross and death and whatever unfathomable resurrection lies beyond. As I reflect on this, I’ve come to think that we often find Christmas saccharine because of our sentimental insistence on good vibes when the birth of Christ augurs the messy complexity and the terrifying mystery of life itself. These slain children, like the innocents of old, belong to the season and its hidden shadows.
I grieve their loss, and our collective failure to protect them.
Along with Christmas itself, our beautiful tree is alight with hope and sadness.
Written in memory of the 27 children and adults who were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut on 14 December 2012, and with the resolve of an American citizen to resist the tyranny of the gun.