Thursday, December 28, 2006

Four Calling Birds

Happy Fourth Day of Christmas.

As I mentioned two days ago in connection with St Stephen's Day, it is slightly ironic, and also slightly appropriate, that in the midst of our yuletide rejoicing, blood is shed. This time it's that of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, whose feast we observe today.

The currently-showing film The Nativity Story frames its narrative with this gruesome event (but circumspectly--I don't recall actually seeing any blood, though there was plenty of "Rachel weeping for her children"). As is their wont, New Testament scholars are apt to attribute our knowledge of this barbarism to Matthew's keenness to provide a pretext for the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt, in order to set Jesus up as the "new Moses." But the slaughter of innocent children hits most people at such a visceral level that erudite pronouncements of that sort seem trifling.

That leaves us with a bit of a scandal, related to the age-old question of theodicy, perhaps the single biggest challenge to Christian apologetics: How can a good God allow such awful things to happen? (To quote from Archibald MacLeish's play JB: "If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God.") And to compound the problem, the little boys of Bethlehem were put at risk precisely because of Jesus' presence among them. So does it not seem manifestly unfair that an angel would warn Joseph to get out of Dodge, but not slip a note to the other parents in town?

I'm not going to attempt to solve that dilemma in a blog post. This is the sort of thing where our Enlightenment scientific presuppositions get us in trouble. Being too literal only intensifies the pain. The symbolic and allegorical approach of our Patristic forbears is probably more helpful--at least in making sense of the observance (one hesitates to say "celebration") of the liturgical feast, if not of the event itself. The cardinal principle is that life is sustained only through the shedding of innocent blood. Whatever animals provided full-length clothing for Adam and Eve as they were banished from the garden were the first to learn this. Anyone who buys a pound of ground beef at a meat market should know the same thing. (Not to let vegetarians off the hook: Any fruit or vegetable has had its natural life cycle violently interrupted in order to become food.) The innocents of Bethlehem are a link in a long chain. Every link is ultimately connected to the Lamb of God, who by "his one oblation of himself, once offered" (BCP), takes away the sin of the world and grants us the peace of God by granting us peace with God.

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