, Salem, MA


January 5, 2013

Column: The massacre of innocents


The feast day first appears in the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from circa 485; it became a fixed day in the liturgical calendar only during the Middle Ages. Its place there aided it in becoming a recurrent theme in musical and artistic expression. One example is the so-called “Coventry Christmas Carol,” the haunting lyrics of which represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. With numerous, anonymous medieval predecessors, early-modern painters such as Guido Reni, Pieter Bruegel, Peter Paul Rubens, and Cornelius von Haarlem took up the theme.

Depictions of the massacre vary in content and style, but a common motif shows Herod, ensconced in the arrogance of political power, on one side of the painting, separated from a throng of powerless, weeping women on the other. Between them, one sees a jumbled scene of dead and dying babies and their obedient executioners.

Neither the liturgy of the Holy Innocents nor artistic depictions of the theme attempt to “solve” the raw experience of tragedy — even as it is certainly to be understood as taking place within the larger Salvation Story. Arguably, both liturgy and art intensify the feeling of anguish. They call a spade a spade: “Look hard,” they say, “at the dead children; this is unimaginable, gut-wrenching sorrow.” But in doing so, they make us realize that there are regions of human experience that transcend the political, the practica — regions that cannot be fixed, and only beckon, plaintively and even angrily, for a theological response. They escort us from the op-ed realm of the remediable to the numinous realm of the why.

Remedies and political solutions of all sorts, of course, should be sought out after events like the Newtown shooting. As seekers of Shalom, Christians should be at the very forefront in proposing them. But we should also remember that our humanity is compromised when we ignore or subsume the theological into the political alone. The Feast of Holy Innocents and artistic renderings of the theme provide a supra-political “space” for us to ponder — simply ponder — unspeakable sorrow and our unanswerable questions. They do so most compellingly when they are faithful to the biblical text, as when the Gospel of Matthew reaches back to the book of Jeremiah, and offers us only these sparing, disconsolate words:

A voice was heard in Ramah

Wailing and loud lamentation

Rachel weeping for her children;

She refused to be consoled.

Because they were no more.


Tal Howard is a professor of history at Gordon College and director of the Center for Public Inquiry.

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