Tragedy is something we all deal with in our lives and has great religious implications. When we are faced with tragedy, the question always seems to pop up somewhere, “Where is God in this?” At this point we go one of two ways: we lose faith, unable to find God in the bad and so deny His existence in the good, or we, through prayer, come to a closer relationship to God because of our trial through fire.
Just as undergoing tragedy is something all human persons go through in each of our respective lives, so too has the Church gone through tragedy. We see this especially clearly today as the Church laments the harm done to individuals by her priests. But on this Feast of the Holy Innocents, we recall with pain in our hearts that same pain she felt and grappled with throughout history. Today’s feast is a commemoration of the loss of innocent souls who died a true martyr’s death and the Church, just like us, had to come to some understanding about why God would allow this to occur. We hear her answer to this question through Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, whose answers may be watered down and synthesized to: God would not have allowed something like this to happen unless it was to bring about some greater glory to God.
As I was thinking about this answer I was forced to ask some more questions: why does something as evil as the death of innocent children happens and what is that greater glory to God which is brought about?
In reflecting on this tragedy, I was struck by the foreshadowing that the death of the innocents brings. It seems that, biblically, something of this magnitude does not occur unless it is because something important is about to happen. In the Old Testament, the massacre of innocents which we read about in the Office for the day (Exodus 1:8-16, 22) served as the herald of the coming of Moses who would be the savior of the captive Israelites in Egypt. Further, in today’s Gospel, which has a certain irony to the word at first glance, (Matthew 2: 13-18) the massacre of holy innocents heralds the coming of Christ, our savior in the New Testament.
So why does this happen? The first answer is that it seems to be a heralding of sorts for our saviors. However, grace, and lack thereof, builds on nature and the devil uses our own feelings and emotions against us. In both of these accounts we mentioned above, we are told why the massacres happen: because of fear and pride. In Exodus, pharaoh feared what would happen if the Israelites became too large. He feared that he would be unable to keep his power. He feared that he and his subjects would, like their captives, become captive themselves. And so he did what he thought would save him: he ordered the murders of babies fresh from the womb. Similarly, Herod feared what would happen to him and his power if a new king came. However, the fear itself did not warrant the killing of innocent children. It was his pride which was the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back, it was the fact that he had been deceived by the Magi and unable to kill the child himself that he took his anger and fear our on the little ones in and around Bethlehem.
In answer to the second question I posed earlier, it is clear what the greater glory is. The greater glory exists in that, although the devil can entice men to do something as atrocious as the murder of innocent children, God can still turn mourning into gladness. The greater glory of God rests in not something else but in the very fact that God can allow for goodness to come from something so evil. And how truly great is that fact? It is this fact which means that evil cannot triumph and the “reign” of the devil on earth will be a short lived and unsuccessful one.
One final thought I had when reflecting on this most holy feast was the fact that, as we look around our culture today, we see the same thing happening: we are ourselves living through and surviving, another, a third, massacre of innocents. This time, however, the fear is that we are not ready to have a child or our careers have not started yet or that we are too young. The pride is that we ourselves are gods and we choose when life comes, not the one true God. So I would say that perhaps we should spend some time in prayer and discernment about this massacre and about what it means in our lives. What does it herald? Does it herald the return of the savior? Yes, as does our every breath. But what does it herald for us personally and how will God use us to bring about His greater glory through this great tragedy?
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