Feast of the Holy Innocents
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
The incarnation of the Son in the birth of Jesus brings with it the promise of eternal life for all those who believe, pick up their cross, and follow Christ. Born along with Jesus is a dark promise of persecution and violence for those who walk his narrow way. Just two days ago, we honored Stephen who was brutally murdered for publicly praising God in the name of Christ Jesus. Stephen's death fulfilled our Lord's promise: “You will be hated by all because of my name. . .” But Stephen reaped the glory of another divine promise, “. . .whoever endures to the end will be saved." Suffering at the hands of those who hate us and dying while persevering in the faith is the Church's most profound witness to the truth of the gospel. It is one thing to endure ridicule, argument, and imprisonment in the name of Christ. It is quite another to die by torture, execution, or a terrorist bomb all the while loving and forgiving your murderer for Christ's sake. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. We honor those thousands of children slaughtered by Herod in a vain attempt to murder the Christ-child. Though they did not themselves profess the faith, they died horribly for Christ's sake. The Holy Family escaped into Egypt, while the children Herod massacred escaped into martyrdom: innocent of any crime, their lives were ended to assuage the political fury of a tyrant. We look to their innocence and their sacrifice to show us the way to holiness.
Herod's massacre of the Innocents reveals an ugly truth about human nature and the fallen order of creation: a man with nearly unlimited power will almost inevitably commit horrible crimes. The marriage of disordered passion and worldly power often gives birth to genocide, war, and the destruction of nations. But none of us here wields nearly unlimited power. That plague infects only a few. Most of us are burdened with a far less comprehensive but nonetheless potentially destructive plague—a wholehearted belief in our innocence. We believe that we are entirely free of sin. John writes, “If we say, 'We are without sin,' we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . .If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make [Christ] a liar, and his word is not in us.” Make no mistake here! We are free from sin, but being free from sin does not mean that we are free of sin. The prison doors are unlocked and jammed open, but we sometimes stand in our cells refusing to walk free. John continues, “If we acknowledge our sins, [Christ] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” The first step on the way to holiness, true innocence, is the acknowledgment of our sins and the reception of God's forgiveness. The pretense of innocence—that we are without sin—prevents us from receiving the forgiveness we have been given.
The Holy Innocents died at the hands of a sinful man seeking to prolong his corrupt rule. That innocents die everyday is a consequence of creation's fallen order and our own rebellion against God's Word. So long as we refuse to walk freely the narrow way of Christ—loving, forgiving, showing mercy—we prolong and give comfort to the corrupting rule of the Enemy. However, as Stephen and the Holy Innocents have shown us, choosing to step away from our culture's disordered passions and embracing the way of peace risks the dark promise of Christ's birth: we may die for his sake. Keep this truth close: “[Christ] is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.” Holiness is a risk well worth taking.
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