Grief

When God-with-Us is no Comfort: Feast of Holy Innocents

Scriptures Readings: Holy Innocents:

The sound track for this post:

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What are we to make of the feast of the Holy Innocents? What is happening as we remember and celebrate these innocents, the unknown number of infants and toddlers who are martyrs? To what do these innocents witness? In what way do they give witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Rachel weeps for her Children. Rachel a collective ancestral name, one of the mothers of Israel. Another name for Israel, just as Israel is also known as Jacob.

This is a strange feast combining lamentation and celebration of these martyrs, the Holy Innocents: infants and toddlers slain by king Herod.  The lamentation of Rachel refusing to be comforted.

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escape being warned to flee to Egypt. The hymn “Audit tyrannus anxius, in the Benedictine Daily breviary, for Holy Innocents speaks of these infants murdered by Herod as martyrs, and rejoices that these innocents are in the presence of God. It’s an unsettling sentiment. We, I suppose, are more likely to escape with Mary and Joseph than to sit with Rachel.

We, of whatever persuasion of Christian, we fail to let the reality of this day sink in. There’s the rushing to contemplate these infants in the presence of God singing the hymn of praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” without contemplating the horror of this moment.  The opposite response is to merely focus on the tragedy, which is making use of the tragedy to insist on the relevance of the Gospel and proof text the social gospel as a means to chastise those who seem indifferent to suffering injustice and oppression. We are avoiding what is most troubling: After God’s coming to be with us, God in human flesh, Jesus, escapes the massacre of the innocents, but God does not prevent the massacre.

We need the space of faithful Lament. We need the space to sit with tragedy when we see no action of God in which we are confronted with overwhelming evil and the power of death unleashed, and life squashed. We need a space to lament when Life has no answer. “Rachel refuses to be consoled.” Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was also speaking of his time and the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In this story, there is the permission to not be consoled, when there is no comfort to be given.

In the Benedictine Daily Breviary, there’s a contradiction in celebrating this day: on the one hand the hymn appointed doesn’t let us grieve or lament (this is a feast day after all celebrating martyrs), but in the Day Time prayers we are invited to lament; the scriptures appointed for the day are from lamentations.

I wonder if there’s something to this contradiction. An invitation to in celebration not let ourselves be consoled. We are invited to lament the continued power of death even as God is with us in the word made flesh. The contradiction invites us to remember that this lament and lack of consolation is as much part of the Christmas story as “Peace on Earth, and Good will toward all.”

In a mash-up of Luke and Matthew and John, what we find is that not long after God in human flesh is born, and the angels announce tidings of great joy, and proclaim “Peace on earth and Good will towards all”, this proclamation is contradicted by Herod.  At the moment God moves into our neighborhood in the Word made flesh, Death rears its head and strikes and God is powerless. God with us doesn’t stop Herod from his destructive and death filled evil ways. More troubling is that God with us draws out Herod’s furry and God with us becomes an occasion for Herod’s tyranny as he seeks to stamp out the Word made flesh.

What then does Rachel and her “holy innocents”, her saints, these martyred infants, give witness to? Acknowledging God with us and God at work in the world, is not consolation for suffering oppression and tyranny. God’s solidarity with us isn’t necessarily a comfort. These innocents as martyrs and saints must be among those numbered who in addition to “Holy, Holy, Holy”, sing out “How long…

On this day during the joy of Christmas we join our voice with those dressed in white before the throne singing not only “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but also in lamentation sing “How long, O Lord!”

*Edited for clarity and corrected typos, 12/29/2016

Holy Week, Grief and the Unexpected

As has become our custom at Reconciler, I didn’t preach.  We let the liturgy, the scriptures, sung and read, the hymns preach.  We walk a lot in our Palm Sunday service: We the Palm procession, we also process around to different stations for the reading of the Passion Gospel, we process up to gather around the altar, and we then process to the baptismal font for dismissal.  It’s a beautiful service.

The triumphal entry and palm procession didn’t move me this year, or rather it rang hollow.  The griefs of the passion story was more palpable for me this year.  This time around the knowledge that the crowds shouting “Hosanna” would soon melt away muted  the celebration at the beginning of the service.  Grief, loss and the unexpectedness of the liturgy and the Gospel were prominent in my consciousness as I presided in the liturgy.

This is not surprising given that  2013 was a year of loss and grief.  Very little went as I had thought and my father  passed at the end of 2013.  Little of what I’m facing now did I expect to be facing when I last celebrated Palm Sunday and entered Holy Week last year.  A year ago we we’re wondering whether or not my dad’s recovery from a major stroke would be a slow or quick recovery.  Nothing indicated that in 7 months he would die.  I also didn’t expect that the community would be down to four people in a temporary space big enough only for the four members curtailing much of the activity of the community (I’ve written about our “winter” here and here).  The events that are remembered and rehearsed in Holy Week, weren’t anticipated by the disciples and full of distress, loss, grief, and confusion.

Even the hopeful reality of Easter and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, wasn’t what the Apostles and disciples of Jesus expected.  The whole of what we celebrate and enter into in the liturgies of this week are tinged with loss, grief.  Even the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth means a certain loss: Loss of what the Apostles thought was about to come in the life and ministry of Jesus.

We may fail to see the complexity of the story and the liturgies.  We know the story, the path of the liturgy is well worn.  But life happens, and we find ourselves in unexpected places with griefs and losses that we didn’t have the last time we walked this way of Holy Week, of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  If we pay attention we can find these liturgies, these scriptures not only speaking to our situation, but showing us something we hadn’t seen or experienced before.

We  come again and again over our lifetime to these Holy Days, both to interpret our lives, but also because there is always more to learn and experience in these liturgies and these Scripture texts.

Whatever the intervening year has brought you, I encourage to attend to it and how the liturgies and Scriptures are experienced differently because  you are in a different place.  Come to these familiar rites and texts with anticipation.  There is more than you expect in them, there is a deep reality and resource in them.  Encounter them in the difference that life has brought you since you were last here.