The Slaughter of the Innocents by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490
Sunday 28 December 2008: The Holy Innocents: Jeremiah 31: 15-17; Psalm 124; I Corinthians 1: 26-29; Matthew 2: 13-18
May I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I wonder: did Herod lose any sleep at night over the innocent children at Christmas-time?
So many of us know what it’s like to be kept awake at night by innocent little children, especially at Christmas time.
You stay up late into the night, waiting until you’re sure they’re fast asleep before you even start wondering where they’ve hung their stockings, or thinking about where Santa is going to find space beneath the Christmas tree.
Eventually, you’ve sorted everything out, and tired and bleary-eyed you creep up to bed. Then, just as you think you’re about to fall asleep, you hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the stairs. The excitement, the shrieks and the joy mean that’s the last snatch of sleep you’ll get until the afternoon when you drowse in front of the television.
It’s cyclical. When they’re born, you lose sleep over them, waking regularly for constant night-time feeds. A little latter, you lose sleep as you’re called each night to change nappies or to change sheets. When they’re teenagers, you lose sleep worrying whether they’re out too late.
Then, in your naivety, you imagine that when they are adults you’ll get a decent night’s sleep. Don’t be deceived – they’ll be in Australia or Canada … and they’ll call, forgetting it’s the middle of the night. Or, they’ll ask you to mind the grandchildren.
Now I can remember those sleepless nights as nights filled with love … those big beaming eyes looking up after feeding or changing a lovely, loving child were enough thanks, and gave me a real feeling of the love of God.
I wonder: did Mary and Joseph get a decent night’s sleep in the stable in Bethlehem? Did Mary look into her child’s eyes, and as he looked up from his crib after being fed or changed, did she see the love of God shining through those eyes?
I wonder: did the Wise Men lose sleep on their way to Bethlehem? Or were they too anxious to make sure they didn’t lose sight of the start guiding their way?
I wonder: did the Wise Men lose sleep as they made their way back from Bethlehem? Or were they too anxious to make sure Herod’s men weren’t tracking them in order to drag them back for a cruel grilling in Jerusalem?
I wonder: how many nights’ sleep did Herod lose over the little child he heard had been born? Did he think of combing through the back streets and the side alleys of Bethlehem to find him himself?
I wonder: did Mary and Joseph sleep at all at night during their perilous journey down through the Sinai Desert and across the Nile into Egypt, worried about their safety and saving the Saviour-Child?
I wonder: how many nights’ sleep did Herod lose over all the Innocent Children who had been slaughtered at his command?
The Byzantine liturgy says 14,000 Holy Innocents were slaughtered on Herod’s orders, an early Syrian list says these first martyrs for Christ were 64,000 in number. But given the size of Bethlehem at the time, the number of slain children may have been only between six and 20. But even if it was one or two children – did Herod lose even one night’s sleep if he heard a voice in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, if he heard Rachel weeping for her children?
There is no such thing as an innocent child unless we say that all children are innocent. And no child’s suffering is ever tolerable or acceptable. Whether the number was 64,000, 14,000, 20, six, or even one, the thought of even one innocent child suffering at the hands of someone who has power over his or her life should move us to tears.
It is a sad judgment on the whole Church that the suffering of any child, even one child, should be seen as an agenda item for discussing the efficiency or inefficiency of different layers of church administration: should the recommendations of a report be implemented? Who is responsible for its implementation? Should we make its findings public?
Shifting the blame is always a sure indication that responsibility is being abandoned.
Oscar Schindler famously said: “Whoever saves the life of one saves the entire world.” He was referring to a well-known teaching in the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 8, 37a). It is a teaching that has inspired the inscription on medals awarded to the Righteous Gentiles, those brave people who risked their own lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust: “Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if he had saved the whole world.”
The obvious deduction from that, of course, is: Whoever destroys the innocence of one child, it is as if he has destroyed the innocence of all children, as if he has destroyed the childhood of everyone. It is for this reason that Jesus reserves his most severe and most frightening warning and rebuke for those sort of people (see Mark 9: 42; Luke 17: 2).
The appalling cases of child abuse and the mishandling of those cases is not just a matter of shame for one bishop, or for one diocese, whether it is Cloyne, Ferns or Dublin. Nor is it a matter of shame for one branch of the Church, in isolation from other branches of the Church. This is a matter of shame for the whole Church.
Quite frankly, I think the Bishop of Cloyne, and anyone else involved in the mishandling and hiding of child abuse cases, in any part of the Church, should resign immediately. But this is not a matter of triumphalism for the Church of Ireland – we too have had some very sad cases, and have been saved humiliation and embarrassment by a very fair handling of court cases in the media.
But this is not about embarrassment and humiliation. It is about how the Church should defend and protect the innocence of children and deal swiftly and immediately with those who threaten and destroy the lives of children.
When one part of the Church errs, the whole Church should cry out in lamentation and with bitter weeping, for if one child suffers we should weep for all children. Or else, the whole Church errs.
When I say the Bishop of Cloyne should resign, and resign immediately, do not mistake my intentions. I would say the same about anyone who mishandles reports of child abuse, in any part of the Church, including the Church of Ireland, or, for that matter, in any part of society. And while cases like this continue, then we should lose not just one night’s sleep, but many nights’ sleep.
When God came to us in the Christ child, God came to us as a little, small vulnerable child. As Mary looked into this innocent babe’s eyes, she saw the love of God shining out to her.
But how many mothers have seen this love, night after night, and have realised that they too are receiving the love of God as they answer the call from a cot for a feed or a nappy change?
Love and innocence; the gift of God in every birth, and especially in the birth of Christ at Christmas; the innocence of one child and every child – we should always guard it, protect it, cherish it, and cry out whenever it is violated.
And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 28 December 2008.