Preached at Trinity College Chapel – Toronto. Jan 11, 2012.
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ - Matthew 2: 16-18
Today’s celebration of the Holy Innocents, the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by Herod, has led me to reflect on the concept of innocence. We have a romantic view of children and childhood and the concept of innocency plays a large part of it. William Blake’s poems the Songs of Innocence and Experience reflect this. One of his songs of innocence:
'I have no name; I am but two days old. '
What shall I call thee?
'I happy am, Joy is my name.
' Sweet joy befall thee!
Pretty joy! Sweet joy,
but two days old.
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile, I sing the while;
Sweet joy befall thee!
I will never forget the day my son was born. He was two weeks late and my wife’s labour was induced. It was not an easy labour as my son was facing the wrong way and eventually the doctor tried to turn him around using forceps before deciding that a caesarian delivery was the best option. This was a scary and helpless time for me especially as they allow you in the delivery room and the mother is awake for the procedure. I will never forget my first real sight of my son – I confess that I didn’t look closely as he was born and I was busy reassuring myself that my wife was well. I finally looked over to the side where the nurses were weighing him and doing the Apgar assessment of his health. I had a hard time believing that I had anything to do with this new life… and then I saw his long gangly arms and legs appear over the side of the scale and I thought: “Yup. He is mine!”
The gift of a cesarean birth for a father is that I had almost an hour sitting in a rocking chair holding him and bonding with him while my wife was in recovery, and trying to figure out what name to call him. Nadine and I had several names in mind with Alexander on the top of the list but we felt that Alexander was a strong name for a child and we wanted to see if it was warranted. I looked my son in the eyes and asked him if he was an Alexander. In response, he took a deep breath and began to wail. Because of the forceps, only one half of his face was mobile (this was only a temporary condition) and when he cried that night he looked just like a really ticked off Popeye the Sailor Man! This was no innocent cherub in my arms – this was a really angry old man! He seemed tough enough to bear the name Alexander. An innocent? Nope. But so strong and so human!
The feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is an example of a veneration of innocence that I am uncomfortable with. It is the death of “innocent” children that has become seen as the tragedy here. The slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem on Herod’s orders… Were the children innocent? Were they depraved or guilty? Does it really matter?
This is one of the dangers of Christianity this black or white dualism. Does God really love the innocent more than the rest of us? Many Christians believe that He does. My late Systematic Theology professor would tell us that God loves everyone “just enough” but that he loves some of us even more. With all respect to my much missed and beloved brother and teacher...I disagree. God loves all of us – period. But, if I were to editorialize and theologize I would venture that God loves the broken, the flawed, the guilty, and the sinner best of all. Really, who needs God’s love more? When the prodigal son returned, the father celebrated. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. When the one sheep strayed did the Shepherd stay with the good sheep or did he go after the lost? This is the Love of God, the anxious parent, the lover. As Henri Nouwen points out: "God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end…No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found."
Does God love the innocent more than the rest of us? The thought that He does leads to a dangerous dichotomy. It can allow us to abandon the lost sheep and the guilty with a clear conscience.
I asked another professor here at Trinity who studies Evangelism in the United States why it was that the most fervent pro-life Christian politicians were the first to cut programs for single mothers or food and medical supplements for children on the margins. The professor responded that their view was that the “pre-born” were innocent and deserved protection and the post-born were not. Does the lack of innocency abrogate the Christian responsibility to care for those on the margins. This is the result of the innocence/ guilt duality.
American David French has been writing on this subject in the National Review Online: “It is past time to admit a very hard truth,” he says: “America’s poverty problem is also a depravity problem.” He goes on to write. “It is simply a fact that people who work hard, finish their education, get married, and stay married are rarely — very rarely — poor.” The depravity of the poor…
By French’s definition the children of Bethlehem for him, were not innocent – they were poor, and therefore depraved.
For me, they were so beloved of God, they were broken as we all are.
My past career was as a sommelier and wine educator and I think the grape has an example to offer here. The grape of vitus vinifera is a perfect self-contained wine factory. Every part of the grape contributes to the making of wine. From inside out, the pips (seeds) at the center contain tannins and other antioxidants that contribute to human health and to the preservation of wine giving it protection from the adverse effects of oxygen and in-amicable bacteria. The pulp is the next layer containing water, sugar, and other nutrients, vitamins etc. Enclosing the pulp is the skin. The skin also contains tannins and antioxidants that assist in the preservation of wine as well as colouring and phenolic compounds that contribute to the flavour of wines. On the outside of the skin is a waxy compound known as the “bloom.” This sticky layer traps native yeasts that are resident in vineyards. Each grape is created by God to be a perfect self-contained factory and all that is required for the process of winemaking to begin is for the skin of the grape to be broken and the yeasts on the bloom to come in contact with the sugars in the pulp. Then the process of fermentation begins with the sugars being transformed into carbon dioxide and alcohol. As with humanity, brokenness leads to transformation, the transformation for the grape is in the creation of alcohol, and the transformation for us also lies in our brokenness. It is our brokenness that brings us closer to God. The purpose of the wine grape is not realized in its plump, rosy, waxy perfection – its innocence. It is only when broken, that the grape is transformed into what God planed for it to be.
These are comfortable thoughts for those of us who are no longer innocent. Those of us who like me are guilty of many sins. That God loves the brokenness in us. That through our sin, DESPITE our sins, because of our sins, that God loves us.
William Blake again, this time from a Song of Experience:
My mother groaned, my father wept:
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.
This is a child I know. Not innocent. Feisty. Naughty. Sulky. And Human.
This is the child that my son Alexander turned out to be. He has been feisty, naughty, sulky, and he has been joy and innocence and sweet and brilliant. He is a child of God. He is light and dark. He is brilliant and obtuse. He is caring and careless. He is loving, and he breaks my heart. It is his complexity that I adore and I know that God loves all of him (as do his parents) – and never more that when he is wrestling with his shadows. It is his brokenness that allows the light of God to shine through him.
Does God love just the innocent among us? Does God hate the guilty? No and NO! God does not call us to be simply Holy Innocents. He calls us to find the holy in our sins, find the holy in our brokenness, to find the holy in our transformation: To find the holy in each other.
We mourn the children of Bethlehem – innocent or not. As we mourn the children of Masada – innocent or not. We mourn the children dead from disease through the ages – innocent or not. We mourn the children of the Holocaust. We mourn the children of starvation. We mourn the child soldiers of Africa. We mourn First Nations children sent to residential schools or living on substandard reserves. We mourn the children of anger and despair and hopelessness. We mourn the children of poverty and on the margins in this city. We mourn all children. The children of Bethlehem are not mourned for their innocence but for their humanity.
Broken and very human.
They are beloved children of God, as are we all.
Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton