The notion of “innocence” has an interesting range of meaning. At a literal and concrete level, it denotes absence of guilt or culpability in relation to a specific act or series of acts. Organizations like the Innocence Project operate according to this simple meaning, seeking to exonerate and liberate those who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, those who are innocent.
In a more refined vein, “innocent” can refer to experience that is unblemished by some of the crude and vulgar realities of life. When children are introduced prematurely to violence, sexuality, or exploitation, they are said to have “lost their innocence.”
We tend to presume that young children are innately “innocent” in both dimensions (the doctrine of original sin and the experience of parents of toddlers notwithstanding). They are not guilty of heinous behavior, if only for the fact that they have not yet had the opportunity to engage in it. Nor have they had the opportunity to develop jaded cynicism toward life, inasmuch as they have not been abused or exploited. They retain their innocence on both levels.
This is the origin of the name of today’s feast day. Herod sent troops to kill all boys under two years of age, children who were manifestly innocent, in an attempt to cast a net wide enough that it would be likely to snare baby Jesus, the one whom the Magi had come to worship as a king, and whom Herod therefore perceived as a threat. The attempt was unsuccessful, per Matthew’s narrative, because Joseph was warned about the attack in a dream and absconded with his family to Egypt.
The church honors these little boys as “honorary martyrs” for Christ, in a sense, even though they had never heard of him, because their lives were taken, and untold anguish inflicted on those who loved them (“Rachel weeping for her children”) in an attempt to eliminate one who was, along with them, utterly innocent in every dimension, and who was destined to become the innocent paschal lamb. Such knowledge would likely have provided no comfort to weeping Rachel, but as an element in the poetry of the paschal mystery, it makes coherent sense.
The significance of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, of course, lies not merely in their innocence, but in their victimhood. An unspeakable injustice was perpetrated on them. So, the intervening two millennia have called forth spiritual reflection that sees these young boys as signs of all — boys, girls, women, and men — who are innocent victims, whose suffering is not somehow a plausibly just recompense for bad behavior, but, rather, an abrogation of fundamental justice. The connection with the Holy Innocents is most compelling in the case of the most marginalized and least powerful in any human society — children, including those who are yet in utero. The suffering of innocent children separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border (whatever their parents may or may not be guilty of) comes readily to mind here, as does the ongoing holocaust of abortion.
One of the classic methods of ruminating on a biblical narrative is to find oneself in the story, to identify with one of the characters or groups. The account of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem is a particular challenge in this regard, because the options are so few: the Holy Family (in absentia), King Herod, the troops doing his bidding, and the little boys. It doesn’t seem quite right to claim solidarity with the Jesus-Mary-Joseph unit, and none of us hold the sort of despotic power that King Herod enjoyed, so he’s not a likely candidate.
Now, we might want to pitch our tent with the innocent victims here, because, let’s face it, we’ve all felt ourselves to be innocent victims, probably on multiple occasions, right? If nothing else, the social strictures of “coronatide” punch our innocent victim ticket, and all the more so if we or someone we know has become infected, even after being rigorously compliant with all recommendations of the civil authority.
Yet… really? Do we really want to put ourselves in the same moral category with little crawlers and toddlers who look up at a stranger in their home one moment and then get run through with a sword? It doesn’t really add up. But who’s left? That would be the sword-wielding soldiers, the ones who were inflicting the suffering on the innocent victims.
Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. We’re not that bad. But let’s not kid ourselves too much. I regularly have the experience of praying the imprecatory Psalms and actually looking forward to it, because I can fan the flames of righteous indignation toward those who have done me wrong, those who have inflicted unjust suffering on me or my tribe (which can mean any number of different things in various contexts). Yet, I am ever more aware that, even as I picture certain faces as I pray these psalms, there are probably people out there praying the same psalms and picturing my face! One of my besetting sins is the throwaway line, the extemporaneous zinger that is delivered chiefly for the purpose of impressing myself with my own wit. I know I have wounded people with my words, even if I have stopped short of putting them to death by a sword.
In Eucharistic Prayer A of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the presider voices the assembly’s acknowledgment that humankind, after having been created by and for God, has fallen “into sin and become subject to evil and death.” And the precise nature of the “sin” into which we have “fallen” is that it renders us simultaneously victims and perpetrators. We are nowhere near as innocent as the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. Neither is the evil in which we indulge as obviously gruesome as that perpetrated by those who executed Herod’s self-serving project.
Even so, the Holy Innocents will not let us off the hook for our participation in the evil which, while vastly different in degree from that which they suffered, is not particularly different in kind. To the extent that we see their faces, we should see their eyes looking at us, not at some distant third party. And we should see in those eyes those whose innocent suffering our words and actions abet, either personally or systemically.
It is serendipitous that, following right on the heels of Christmas joy, come two feast days that confront us with shed blood: St. Stephen the protomartyr two days ago, and the Holy Innocents today. The principal reason Jesus was born was so he could die, shedding his own blood, as an innocent victim, for the life of the world.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.