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The Sacredness of Childhood, the Weeping of Rachel, and the Tragedy in Connecticut

December 16, 2012

Holy InnocentsOf all the suffering around us in this world of ours, the suffering and death of innocent children especially make us shudder with horror, because there is something so sacred and pure about childhood. And what is sacred and pure must never be trampled upon or defiled. Our compassionate Savior said to his disciples, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” What makes children especially worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven? Saint John Chrysostom teaches that children have an angelic simplicity about them. They cry one moment and laugh cheerfully the next. They do not seek after wealth, but love, which they give back so freely. They understand what matters in life. That’s why if given the choice between a queen in splendor and their mother in rags, they will always choose their mother. Thus, the Saint writes, “a young child is not saddened by what saddens us such as losing money and is not made glad by costly things or beautiful people that make us happy.” By nature and by their stage in life, children possess an evangelical simplicity and even an angelic way of valuing the world that many of us no longer possess and are trying desperately to recover, like a paradise now lost.

Elsewhere, the Lord Christ also said, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Commenting on this passage, Saint John Chrysostom suggests that we imitate little children who don’t seek what is high and exalted, but are happy with the artless, the lowly and the humble. And of course, Saint Paul calls Christians to be as children when it comes to malice, which according to Saint Augustine means being without pride and airs that are at the root of malicious intent. The Lord’s love of children is so apparent throughout Scripture. On the way to His passion He said, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.”  And as for sins against children, He said, “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

These patristic and scriptural reflections are all the more poignant in the wake of the terrible tragedy in that elementary school in Connecticut. Many will ask, “Why, O Lord, why!” “Why did this happen?” And this is the most painful of questions, for the heavens seem silent and only the aching loss of an empty place is felt in a heart with wounds that may never heal. This post does not presume to attempt to respond a question whose answer is ultimately hidden in eternity. Instead, I turn to one of the fathers’ tools for such situations, looking for biblical parallels. In this case, we look back to a tragedy that occurred two millennia ago, around the time of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem when the tyrant King Herod ordered that 14,000 infants be slaughtered.

At Vespers on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the Church solemnly chants, “The iniquitous one, seeking the hidden Treasure, slew the innocent babes on this day; and Rachel was inconsolable, beholding their unjust slaughter and untimely death, and wept for them, her womb wracked with pain.  But she is gladdened now, seeing them in the bosom of Abraham.”  The “iniquitous one” refers to Herod who, in his frantic search for the Messiah, orders all male children under the age of two to be slaughtered in his territory.  Rachel, spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, represents the suffering People of God as they weep and lament the slaughter of the innocent ones: “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”  The last line of the Church’s hymn to which I’ve referred, however, adds another layer of meaning, which is perhaps the most instructive for us: “but she is gladdened now, seeing them in the bosom of Abraham.” In eternity, when every Rachel has passed from this life to the one to come, there will be gladness in the vision of those beloved innocent children in the bosom of Abraham receiving all the love, all the joy, all the peace, and all the compassion that they did not have an opportunity to experience fully in the rough journey of life.

In the wisdom of the Church, the tragic story does not end with weeping and lamentation, which are so common in this short life of ours, but with a gladness and joy beyond our hopes and our dreams in that place in which “God Himself shall wipe away all tears from ours eyes.” The Church interprets the slaughter of the Holy Innocents through the lens of the paschal mystery and understands their unjust killings to be a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.  The holy innocents are referred to as martyrs, witnesses to Christ and His love.  In her providential care of us, the Church reminds us that we are sojourners in a strange land.  The Kingdom for which we should all be striving belongs to the innocent children. And as Rachel recognized through faith in the goodness of God, those little ones are safely ensconced in the bosom of their Heavenly Father where no evil, pain or sorrow shall touch them ever again.

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