Saturday, January 2, 2010

Massacre of the Innocents

As we approach Epiphany and celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, we must also confront the response of the world to that revelation: the massacre of Bethlehem’s innocent sons is the shadow side of the bright glory of the Epiphany.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more” (Mt 2:16-18, NKJV).

These children were but the first of those who would die in the name of Christ. Nearer our time, within the memory of many and the lifetime of many more, countless innocents – and many who were not so innocent – were sacrificed to Stalin’s regime in Russia, imprisoned in “special camps” under inhuman conditions until hope and life were extinguished.

But not all succumbed. Father Arseny (1893-1973) survived and brought an Epiphany of Christ into the darkness of the death camps. Surrounded by death, he nonetheless lived and shone forth the light and life of Christ. Once, near the end of his internment, he visited the camp graveyard, prompting this reflection and prayer. It is a fitting meditation on the massacre of the Innocents and on all the evil of this present dark age.

What is all this for, O my Lord? What did all these people suffer and die for? All of them: believers, non-believers, righteous ones, criminals whose crimes are impossible to weigh in human understanding? Why? And the answer came to me:

This is one of Thy mysteries, Lord, which we people – the slaves of sin – cannot understand. This mystery is Thine. Thy ways are inscrutable. Thou alone knowest the path of each human life; our duty is to simply do good in Thy name, to walk in the statutes of the Gospel, and to pray to Thee. Then the forces of evil will be overcome. For where two or three are gathered in Thy name, there also shalt Thou be. Have mercy on me, O Lord, according to Thy abundant mercy, and forgive me for my despair, my weakness of spirit and my wavering.

Turning in all four directions, I blessed with the sign of the cross all those who were resting here, and bowing low I took my leave of them. Grant rest, O Lord, to the souls of Thy servants who have fallen asleep.


[1] Vera Bouteneff, trans. Father Arseny (1893-1973) Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Copyright 1998. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NJ.

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