Not wholly innocent

Photo: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock
Published January 11, 2018

Today is the day. The last feast has been prepared and the last family party has been attended. I cannot help but wonder whether Mary and Joseph breathed a similar sigh of relief when they saw the wise men, having given their gifts, finally return home by another road.

Christmas is over, Epiphany season has begun, which means today is the day I can take down our long-dead Christmas tree.

While its drooped branches and dried-out needles are an arsonist’s dream, I will confess that I have a bit of sadness in letting it go. I love Christmas, and this year our toddler was just old enough to dwell in the awe and beauty of the season.

As I remove the first set of lights, precipitating a cascade of dead needles onto the floor at the base of the tree, it dawns on me: if the wonder of Christmas is strengthened by the presence of young children, so too is the horror of Christmas’s effects.

No, not the inevitable, unending vacuuming of my needle-covered floor, nor the continued sting of that awkward uncle’s racist remarks at the dinner table, but rather the paradoxical result of the Divine Light’s incarnation into the darkness of our world.

Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem to save the world God loves, and as a direct result of that love, of that holy act, every toddler and baby in Bethlehem is murdered (Matthew 2:16–18).

If Jesus had not been born in that stable, those children would have lived.

Now we might try to cope with this paradox by thinking of this foul deed as a singular event committed by a tyrannical king. I think, however, that this lets us off the hook from a difficult truth we have yet to fully grasp—the murder of Bethlehem’s children in response to God being made flesh is not just an event; it is a pattern.

For while “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5), neither did the darkness go gently into that good night.

King Herod, an agent of that darkness, took the good news of great joy that was supposed to be for all people and distorted it into shrieks of horror and cries of lament over the broken bodies of children.

But more horrific than an outside tyrannical king was the darkness that would beset us from the inside, from within our theologies and churches themselves—theologies and practices that, rather than simply share the good news, would distort it, giving rise to anti-Semitism, legitimating the Atlantic slave trade as well as the theft of Indigenous lands and children.

Rachel’s children are many, and as Christians, I believe we have a moral responsibility to listen to her weeping and to confess that the good news we proclaim has also resulted in the devastation of many.

In the midst of the joy and rush of Christmastide and the following epiphanic sighs of relief, I fear that we have too often quietly passed over the holy day of the Holy Innocents, the day our tradition sets aside to remember and reflect on the innocent children who died because of Jesus’ birth.

Our proclamation of the good news is not wholly innocent.

And in a time of rising white supremacy, of the lasting legacy of slavery, and the continued theft of Indigenous lands and children, we need now, more than ever to listen:

“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” (Matthew 2:19).


  • Jeffrey Metcalfe

    Jeffrey Metcalfe is the diocese of Quebec's canon theologian.

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