Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Holy Innocents


Few churches - certainly few Lutheran churches - will pause to hold worship services in honor of the minor festivals between Christmas and New Years Day. I count myself fortunate to be in an older country parish that still has a tradition of having an Ascension Day Service. How many Lutheran parishes today still hold a service on such a day? I would imagine few. (I know I am the last one in my circuit to still have one!)

The parishes I have served over the last 19+ years have never observed the festivals of St. Stephen, St. John, or the Holy Innocents. Yet here in cyberspace I have the opportunity to observe them, even if ever so briefly.

I think that the last of these festivals, the Holy Innocents, especially needs to be remembered. Read the brief account at Matthew 2: 13-18. These little nameless martyrs may not have numbered more than a couple of dozen in all of little Bethlehem, but they were still innocent and unnecessary victims of Herod's satanic rage. Herod, of course, was known for his uncontrollable anger and violence, which he took out on several of his own family members, including his wife.

What does the slaughter of the innocents represent? Satan knows no bounds to his destruction and wrath. While the target was God's own Son and thus God himself, Satan has no respect for any person or life that stands in his evil way. In a similar and equally tragic way we remember with deep grief the millions of unborn babies that have been sacrificed in the name of choice and female autonomy. Satan is always a destroyer, and the destruction of children is a bold sign of the depth of his wickedness.

Should we therefore be surprised by the extent of violence and bloodshed in our world today? Grieved by it, to be sure, but not surprised. Worldwide terrorism is simply one manifestation of Satan's work. Herold, in essence, was simply an early terrorist.

Yet even in their tragedy these innocent lives declare praise to God. They were sacrificed because of Christ, of which there is no greater honor on earth. Rightfully they are included in the church's calendar as its first martyrs. It is interesting that in a mere three days since Christmas we have witnessed the commemoration of such bloodshed. Life in Christ is life lived on the front lines of a cosmic battle between the forces of heaven and hell, thus always under the cross. We may want to believe that the manufactured sense of peace and tranquility of the holidays is normal, but the truth of life is what we see here in Bethlehem as the blood of children is spilled.

Often the best testimonies of such occasions comes from the church's hymns and from her ancient collects, of which I offer here in closing:

From "By All Your Saints in Warfare" [LSB 517; LW 193]:
All praise for infant martyrs,
Whom Your mysterious love
Called early from their warfare
To share Your home above.
O Rachel, cease your weeping;
They rest form earthly cares!
Lord, grant us crowns as brilliant
And faith as sure as theirs.

Collect for Holy Innocents:
"Almighty God, whose praise was proclaimed on this day by the wicked death of innocent children, giving us thereby a picture of the death of your beloved Son, mortify and destroy in us all that is in conflict with you that we who have been called in faith to be your children may in life and death bear witness to your salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen"

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