Holy Innocents  2014

There has been a significant shift in the liturgical observance of this feast in the last 50 years. When I first noticed these things, a low mass would be celebrated in purple vestments and with no Gloria. The underlying theme was the awful genocide of all these babies, of “Rachel mourning for her children which were not”, along with the total waste of time of it all when Mary was sitting on a donkey with the baby bumping her way to Egypt. Now the theme is much more celebratory, not just of the angelic rescue of the holy child and Joseph's attentiveness to his dreams but of the martyr’s crowns which awaited these unwilling child martyrs.

Both are significant. In the days when there were choir boys sitting through a boring sermon they were given to illuminating their hymn books with pictures. One of the favourites was illustrating a bit of a hymn which was more sung then than now and containing the couplet “Can a mother’s tender care/cease towards the child she bare?” Many are the pictures of a smiling female baby Pooh and I wonder just how much the affection of these, no doubt, often corrected boys held for their mothers is a part of it. The couplet in question is undoubtedly true and born home to us with so much killing that is going on all over the world. All these young murderers have mothers and so did the soldiers of Herod; thousands of soldiers on all sides carried a picture of their mothers with them at all times and pictures would decorate the mantelpieces of countless homes of smiling young men and women in uniform. Our Lady Mary was told that a sword would pierce her heart too and it most certainly did.

Any of us who have taken a baby’s funeral will remember that small white coffin containing the body of somebody loved, even if he or she never lived outside of the womb and the difficulty of ministering at a time of such great sorrow So great is the weight of this sorrow about what might have been that the great and inspiring theological truth is squashed.

The sorrow is because of the great loss; the common idea seems to be that death really is the end, the heart stops beating and there is this horrible void.

I would think that the revised liturgy, as we have it today, is mindful, although possibly ignorant, of a comment by the great Presbyterian scholar T. W. Manson “that it is impossible to conceive of a loving creator ever willing the destruction of something he had made” so the balance of the liturgy is to continue with Christmas joy but remembering the terrible suffering the Christ child was to experience in the full flush of his manhood. So we think of the babies and toddlers as martyrs; martyrs indeed but unaware of the faith but with the honoured place reserved for martyrs in the hereafter. In the funeral of a baby and of a child sorrow and loss are the paramount feelings of all, except for the person whose wrecked body lies in the coffin.

I cannot think of the hereafter as automatic bliss; I cannot go along with the meticulous arithmetic sometimes associated with purgatory but babies and martyrs have no need of this. The one lacks the ability to disobey and so sin, the other in his or her privileged and horrible passion and death has purged his or her sin. So, since there cannot be age and consequent decay hereafter, it is in a sense one big party.  As Fr Jonathan Graham once said to me, “Every time I see a child confined to a wheel chair I think of the necessity of the resurrection of the dead”. 

So we rejoice today that all those murdered babies and toddlers are enjoying the bliss of the resurrection life, which, may it please God, will be our inheritance as well.

        Aidan Mayoss CR