Today on the church calendar is the fourth day of Christmas, dedicated to the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem ordered to be killed by Herod when he learned that the Magi from the East had slipped the net and returned home without giving him the address of the potential usurper of his earthly throne: the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the infant, Jesus.
“Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” ~Matthew 2:17-18
Mothers have been weeping for their children since the first mother, Eve, lost one son to the jealous anger and violence of another son.
Mothers are still weeping.
In the past century the senseless murders of innumerable Innocents have taken place on such a vast scale as to render the mind numb. We number the casualties of the Nazi Holocaust, the Communist regimes of Soviet Russia and China, and the "ethnic cleansings" from Asia to Africa in the millions. Fascist rulers, evil dictators, and ruthless warlords sought either to gain or to hold power by exterminating whole people groups based on race, religion, or political conviction. It’s too easy to look at the numbers and simply see statistics. The wailing and grief are muffled by the sheer size of the catastrophe.
In more recent years though, we have seen tragedies of senseless killing which aren't so very vast, and the wailing and grief are more clearly heard and felt. In 1995 in Oklahoma City a man with a grudge parked a truck packed with fertilizer in front of the symbol of his anger, a government building, on the ground floor of which— and therefore taking the brunt of the blast— was the daycare center for the children of the people who worked upstairs. Among the 168 lives claimed in the blast were 19 children under the age of six. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998, 4 students and 1 teacher were killed by a 13-year old and an 11-year old who pulled the fire alarm at their Middle School and then waited in the woods with their rifles for the students to file outside. In 1999, in the peaceful community of Littleton, Colorado two outcast teenagers entered their high school and methodically shot and killed twelve students and one teacher before committing suicide themselves.
And the list goes on.
The very week that we moved into our new home here in Pennsylvania, while I was painting the dining room, a man entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse, took ten little girls hostage, and eventually shot every one of them, killing five, before killing himself. As the children realized his intention to kill them, two little sisters, aged 13 and 11, asked to be shot first, that the others may be spared. I can’t imagine a more quietly innocent setting for schoolchildren than an Amish schoolhouse, and yet, even there, evil reached out to take the lives of the Innocents.
Two weeks ago today yet another highly-visible slaughter of Innocents occurred when an armed gunman shot his way into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered children, teachers, and staff in cold blood. Does the wailing and grief reach our ears with greater clarity because it was only 11 days before Christmas? When many of us already have a decorated tree in our homes, stockings hanging in anticipation of Santa’s arrival, and brightly-wrapped presents under the tree, it’s too easy to imagine the same scene in 20 homes in Connecticut, homes in which the delight of the season has turned all-too-suddenly to mourning. What does a parent do with the gifts awaiting a child who, instead of squealing in delight on Christmas morning, has been murdered and buried? A billboard which I often pass as I drive through town has been scrolling the names and ages of the victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School, adjuring passing motorists to pray for them. I've prayed for their parents and families, for the first responders and their families, and I've hugged my own children tighter.
Before the final shell casing hit the floor in the blood-soaked first-grade classroom of Sandy Hook Elementary, the debate began. Gun laws need to change, mental health must be addressed, armed guards in every school. I have no answers; I have only tears and prayers. Certainly something needs to change. It seems to me that the weapons are not as much the issue as the intentions of those who wield them. But who can effect changes that will invade the hearts of evil men and stop them from committing further heinous acts? Who can ultimately protect our children?
All I know is this: people have been murdering Innocents since long before the invention of firearms. Cain used a club; rocks, spears, and drowning have been used. Herod's soldiers would have used knives and swords. Since 1973 millions of babies have been legally murdered while yet in their mother’s wombs using chemicals, scalpels, and vacuums. The ancient Romans were very clever when it came to killing, and it was they, at the exhortations of the raving mob, who killed the King of kings and the Lord of lords on a cross made of wood outside the city of Jerusalem, over 2000 years ago.
Three metal spikes and a spear were all it took to murder the One Who spoke the universe into being, He through Whom alone the soldiers were given the strength to hammer home the nails as they pierced His hands and feet. A more innocent man never lived, and yet He died a criminal’s death. But this death in the long history of our wailing and grief is different in that Jesus Christ freely chose to die so that the children He and the Father loved may find life. The soldiers were in not belatedly fulfilling Herod’s plan, but in the mysterious workings of providence, were fulfilling the purpose and plan of their victim.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep... For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” ~John 10:14-18 (italics mine)
In order to bring His sheep home, the suffering Savior carried through with His and the Father’s plan and laid down His life at the ruthless hands of evil men. The Innocent Victim willingly sacrificed. Though He was victoriously resurrected from His grave and ascended to heaven where He even now intercedes for His church, the wailing and grief of living in this sin-soaked world remain. Yet we are not left alone. The night before he was murdered Jesus assured his disciples of this enduring double truth, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Tribulation, we have. In order to take heart, however, we must trust the Lord, because the overcoming isn't as visible as the faces of murdered children played on the evening News. Senseless murder and evil will not come to an end until the Lord of Glory, Jesus Christ, returns and the new heaven and new earth are established in sinless perfection forever.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And He Who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also He said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” ~Revelation 21:1-5
Trustworthy and true. Amen.
In the meantime, "weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15)