The Holy Innocents, Martyrs (Dec. 28)

Last revised: December 25, 2003
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RCL: Jeremiah 31:15-17; 1 Peter 4:12-19; Matthew 2:13-18

Jeremiah 31:15-17


1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, p. 155; Williams’ comments on the prophet Jeremiah are on pages 144-145 and 154-156.

2. More generally on the prophet Jeremiah, see Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 177-184.

1 Peter 4:12-19


1. 1 Peter 4:16 is quoted by James Alison on pages 181-182 of Raising Abel in reflecting on the NT picture of reputation, shame vs. glory, in the context of suffering.

Matthew 2:13-18


1. René Girard, Things Hidden; Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem is mentioned on p. 221 in the context of his comments on “The Virgin Birth”:

The various episodes around the birth of Christ, make palpable the humble beginnings of the revelation, its complete insignificance from the standpoint of the mighty. Right from the start the child Jesus is excluded and dismissed — he is a wanderer who does not even have a stone on which to lay his head. The inn has no room for him. Informed by the Magi, Herod searches everywhere for him in order to put him to death.

See the two sections on “The Divinity of Christ” and “The Virgin Birth.”

2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; on pp. 22-24, Bailie discusses Herod’s perspective on slaughtering the innocents in Auden’s poem For the Time Being, which he mentions again on pp. 27, 36. Here is an excerpt:

In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.” (1) In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”

Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of “victim” had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire. (2)

Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.”Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”

Hughes’s essay was both insightful and entertaining, and yet he never returned to the most important point of all. He never took seriously the words from Auden with which his essay began. Auden’s Herod had sanctioned the slaughter of the innocents in order to keep the events depicted in the New Testament from happening and to prevent these events from having the effect on culture that Hughes and his fellow journalists were lampooning. Hughes never addressed the explicit inference of the Auden quotation from which his whole essay hung like an unripe fruit. He flatly acknowledged that “what Herod saw was America in the late 1980s and early ’90s,” and he strongly implied that the confusion of these years was somehow bound up with an ill-defined and selectively applied empathy for victims. And yet, he never asked why Auden’s Herod had said what he said. He never asked what might have been the role of Christianity in awakening an empathy for victims. Nor did he ponder openly how this empathy might have had the disturbing effects he describes in his article, nor what its larger historical implications might be. This book is an attempt to ponder just those things.

Auden had an anthropological sensibility, and it made him aware of features of the Christian revelation to which conventional Christian piety has yet to fully awaken. Many of Auden’s most important poems toy with insights that Rene Girard has since formulated explicitly. “The victim has the last word in the Bible,” Girard writes, and “we are influenced by this even though we do not want to pay the Bible the homage it deserves.” (3) The victim’s “last word” in the Christian Bible is the Crucified Logos of the gospel. Like Girard, Auden seems to have sensed what troubling consequences the worldwide proclamation of the victim as “Lord” would eventually have for cultures that still rely for their social solidarity on periodic episodes of solemnly sanctioned righteous violence. (Violence Unveiled, pp. 22-24)

3. See also the page for Christmas 1A which shares this Gospel Reading.

Reflections and Questions

1. We say Christmas is for children. Observing this day can emphasize the fact that Christmas is for all children. Find resources that lift up the blight for the world’s forgotten children. A good place to start is the Children’s Defense Fund.

2. I tried a sermon on this theme in 1997, “Christmas Is for All the Children.” It’s difficult to pull off, but it helps to use other liturgical resources that pray for children, etc.


Notes from Bailie excerpt

1. This essay subsequently appeared in Hughes’s book, Culture of Complaint (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

2. In the Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, the term “New Age” has been changed to “New Tragedy.”

3. René Girard, Job: The Victim of His People (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 35.

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