27 December 2021

The innocence of children
and the ‘divine dignity
inherent in every soul’

Christ and the Children … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Monday 27 December 2021

3 p.m.:
Holy Baptism, Ella Roseline Hilary Delbarry

The Readings: 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

The days immediately after Christmas recall some of the great saints and martyrs of the early Christian faith: Saint Stephen (26 December), Saint John the Evangelist (27 December) and the Holy Innocents (28 December).

Saint Stephen, Saint John, the Holy Innocents and Saint Thomas à Beckett the day after tomorrow (29 December) are reminders that Christmas, far from being surrounded by sanitised images of the crib, angels and wise men, is followed by martyrdom and violence. Close on the joy of Christmas comes the cost of following Christ.

We remember the children who are the Holy Innocents tomorrow, three days after Christmas Day. This seems so out of sequence, long before the Magi or three Wise Men arrive at Herod’s Palace, never mind at the stable in Bethlehem.

This commemoration first appears as a feast of the western church at the end of the fifth century, and the earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January), bringing together the murder of the Innocents and the visit of the Magi.

But tomorrow’s Feast of the Holy Innocents, coming so soon after Christmas Day, is an important corrective to some of the prejudices that have become confused with and mixed up with Christianity.

We do not know how many children under the age of two were killed. The numbers vary from 20 (Catholic Encyclopaedia), to 14,000 (Byzantine liturgy), 64,000 (Syrian liturgy), to even 144,000 (Coptic tradition) – the highest figure represents one a minute every day for 10 days; but it also plays on the figure of 144,000 in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 7: 3-8, 14: 1). In other words, these children figuratively come to represent God’s promise of salvation for the whole of humanity.

Have you considered that these children were never baptised?

Have you ever considered that if these children are innocent, then the Christmas story tells us that, in Christ, every child is innocent?

We baptise children not because they are guilty of anything, not because they need to be made clean in some superstitious way.

In recent weeks, I spent some time reading and reviewing for a journal a new major statement from the Orthodox Church, For the Life of the World.

This may seem like an academic exercise to many. But it makes key insightful statements on children and love.

For example, it says true love can be expressed through children. ‘Already in the womb, each of us is a spiritual creature, a person formed in God’s image and created to rejoice in God’s presence.’ It constantly affirms ‘the full equality and dignity of each human person created in the image and likeness of God’ and ‘the inviolable sanctity of each person’, the ‘divine dignity inherent in every soul.’

It says the ‘Church should extend the sacramental gift of baptism to all children, irrespective of the manner in which they were conceived or adopted,’ and presumes ‘the baptism of infants, and also in their immediate admission to the Eucharist.’

It finds ‘the truest model of life in God’s Kingdom in the innocence of children,’ and it speaks eloquently of ‘the innocence of children’ as ‘a thing of extraordinary holiness, a sign of the life of the Kingdom graciously present in our very midst.’

And so, Ella Roseline Hilary Delbarry, in your innocence you show ‘extraordinary holiness, a sign of the life of the Kingdom graciously present in our very midst.’ You are a blessing to your parents, grandparents, godparents and your whole family; but you are also a blessing to the whole Church and to the whole world, for in you we find ‘the truest model of life in God’s Kingdom.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A detail from the Killing of the Holy Innocents, by Giotto (ca 1304-1306), in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 2: 13-18 (NRSVA):

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Liturgical colour: White.

The Penitential Kyries (Christmas):

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod:
By your great might frustrate all evil designs,
and establish your reign of justice, love and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow citizens with the saints
and of the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who were near. (Ephesians 2: 19, 17)


God give you grace
to share the inheritance of the Holy Innocents and of his saints in glory:

A detail from The Killing of the Holy Innocents, by Giotto (ca 1304-1306), in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Possible Hymns:

393, This child from God above (CD 24)
184, Unto us is born a Son (CD 11)
10, All my hope on God is founded (CD 1)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

With the Saints through Christmas (2):
27 December 2021, Saint John the Evangelist

An icon of Saint John the Divine in the cave on Patmos listening to the voice that tells him to write

Patrick Comerford

Our Christmas celebrations are not over yet. Indeed, the season does not end even after the ’12 Days of Christmas.’ This is a season that continues for 40 days until the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas (2 February).

After a day resting in Dublin I am returning to Askeaton this morning for a Baptism in Saint Mary’s Church later this afternoon. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I am continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Christmas;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

It is theologically important to remind ourselves in the days after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Stephen’s Day yesterday [26 December], Holy Innocents’ Day tomorrow (28 December), and the commemoration of Thomas à Beckett on 29 December are reminders that Christmas, far from being surrounded by sanitised images of the crib, angels and wise men, is followed by martyrdom and violence. Close on the joy of Christmas comes the cost of following Christ. A popular expression, derived from William Penn, says: ‘No Cross, No Crown.’

Saint John the Evangelist, the author of the Fourth Gospel, also known as Saint John the Divine and as the beloved Disciple, is celebrated in the Calendar of the Church today [27 December].

Saint John has a prominent place throughout the Gospels. He is:

● one of the three disciples at the Transfiguration,
● one of the disciples sent to prepare a place for the Last Supper,
● one of the three disciples present in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ is arrested,
● the only disciple present at the Crucifixion,
● the disciple to whom Christ entrusts his mother from the Cross,
● the first disciple to arrive at Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection,
● the disciple who first recognises Christ standing on the lake shore following the Resurrection.

Saint John with the poisoned chalice, above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the Ascension, Saint John travels to Samaria and is thrown into prison with Saint Peter (Acts 4: 3). He also travels to Ephesus and is credited with founding the church there.

According to ancient tradition, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but he blessed the cup and the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. Saint John then drank the wine with no ill effect.

A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison is one of his symbols, so that the image of Saint John with the poisoned chalice is still seen above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

There is a custom in some places of blessing wine on this day and drinking a toast to the love of God and to the saint.

Tradition also holds that Emperor Domitian had Saint John beaten and thrown into a pot of boiling oil but that he emerged unscathed from each of his trials. The emperor then banished Saint John to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. He is also identified with the author of the three Johannine Epistles in the New Testament.

In spite of exile and attempts to kill him, Saint John lived to a great old age. By the late 2nd century, the tradition of the Church was saying that Saint John lived to old age in Ephesus.

Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that Saint John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s.

Saint John was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: ‘Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: ‘Little children, love one another.’

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: ‘John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?’ And John replied: ‘Because it is enough.’ If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. ‘Little children, love one another.’

He is said to have died in Ephesus when he was about 100 years old.

Traditionally, Saint John is intimately associated with the Christmas celebration, and the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel (John 1: 1-14) is one of the traditional Gospel readings for Christmas Day.

For Saint John, there is no annunciation, no nativity, no crib in Bethlehem, no shepherds or wise men, no little stories to allow us to be sentimental and to muse. He is sharp, direct and gets to the point: ‘In the beginning … ’

1 In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being 4 in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

As Saint John is sometimes called the Apostle of Love, his message is truly appropriate in the Christmas season. In art, Saint John the Evangelist is frequently represented as an Eagle. He is also shown with a chalice from which a serpent is rising in reference to the attempted poisoning by Domitian.

Scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist in the chapel of Saint John’s College, Cambridge: on the left, he survives being thrown into boiling oil outside the Latin gate (‘ante portam Latinam’); on the right, he survives drinking from a poisoned chalice

John 21: 19b-25 (NRSVA):

19 After this he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Follow me.’

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23 So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (27 December 2021, Saint John the Evangelist) invites us to pray:

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist. May we strive to be ‘pillars of the Church’ as he was.


Gracious Father,
who gave the first martyr Stephen
grace to pray for those who stoned him:
Grant that in all our sufferings for the truth
we may learn to love even our enemies
and to seek forgiveness for those who desire our hurt,
looking up to heaven to him who was crucified for us,
Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Advocate,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow: The Holy Innocents

The site of Saint John’s tomb in Aysoluk, near Ephesus is marked by a marble plaque and four Byzantine pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org