By Father Matthew Hawkins
Parochial vicar, St. Benedict the Moor & St. Mary Magdalene parishes
On the weekend of December 25, we celebrate the Nativity of the Lord and the Feast of the Holy Family. On December 28 we commemorate the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. These three days are compressed on this year’s liturgical calendar and present us with stark contrasts. The moving images of the birth of Jesus Christ and the tightly knit union of the Holy Family are quickly followed by heart-wrenching images of the blood of newly born infants and toddlers.
It is remarkable when we reflect on the figure of the vulnerable baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes in the stillness of the night in the small town of Bethlehem. We are reminded that we often cannot hear the voice of the Lord when we are in the middle of the bombast of the city or in the courtyard of powerful men. The Creator of the universe entered into our humanity as a helpless baby who initially was homeless, and was soon to become, with his family, a refugee in a foreign land.
It is in the stillness of these humble beginnings that God made His presence known to us. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Micah, the prophet who foresaw in Bethlehem, something great that would happen despite its small size: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Mt 2:6)
The shepherds, who were the first to hear the proclamation of angels, were considered the least of the inhabitants of Israel because they were ritualistically “unclean.” Even though they tended livestock for wealthier people to purchase for their own ritual sacrifice, the shepherds lacked the time or the resources to purify themselves so that they could offer sacrifices on their own behalf. Moreover, their work made them outsiders and ruffians in the eyes of those who could afford to keep within the prescriptions of the ritual. Yet these shepherds were the first to genuflect and gaze into the face of the Lord in an act of adoration.
When the Holy Family was forced to flee from Jewish Palestine because of the king of Judea, Herod’s, burning jealousy of a mere child, we are reminded that the family is the domestic church and the “school of charity.” As the Holy Family fled into exile, we are reminded that even in trying times when there is pressure on our families we learn to depend on one another and to think about more than just ourselves. We learn how to be charitable toward our neighbor and the stranger, and we learn how to become gifts to the world. We can feel the intensity and the intimacy of the Holy Family.
But then there was the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, which was an inexplicable horror. We would like to journey through life without problems or pain; we would like to live in a world without suffering and sorrow. Our faith, however, is not an invitation to a flight into fantasy or escapism. Incomprehensible tragedies that weigh on our hearts and that bring us to tears surround us. Problems that we cannot solve under our own power confront us.
Speculation and rationalizations about why God allows tragedies to happen will not make them easier to bear. Instead, in our stillness, in our smallness, in our humility and often within the domestic church of the family, that intimate school of charity, we must allow our hearts to be strengthened and nurtured so that we might become instruments of God’s love in a suffering world.