Herod then with fear was filled:
“A prince,” he said, “in Jewry!”
And all the little boys he killed
At Bethl’hem in his fury.
Childermas – the Feast of the Holy Innocents – is rarely referenced, still less observed, in the modern world, and one can scarcely be surprised. Matthew’s short, two-verse reference (2:16-18) is not mirrored in the other gospels, and although one knows that the joy of Christmas will be inevitably short-lived, the massacre of all male children two years old is nevertheless an abrupt interlude in our festivities which can scarcely be expected to find a place in the secular world. Christians should not be surprised that the unpalatable truths are the most easily glossed over even when we are telling the story of redemption.
In former times the Feast of the Holy Innocents marked the day when the Feast of Fools came to an end, and boy bishops surrendered their temporary authority back to the adults. They should have held on to it for an additional day. Until the Council of Basle 1431 condemned such folk practices, it was customary for a return to normality to be marked by children being whipped in bed on the feast day. The practice only finally died out in the 17th century.
The biblical text evokes recollection of the death of the firstborn at Passover, when the Angel of Death passed over Egypt. But it also reminds us that death will follow the birth of the baby Jesus all too soon. These Holy Innocents are, in a sense, the first martyrs for Christ, but tragically have not been the last. Heartlessness toward the very young is one of the most shocking crimes in the eyes of ordinary people: the Auschwitz Memorial tweets a daily image of the victims of the Holocaust to remind us of their individual humanity, but few raise us to anger and sorrow as much as those of the babies whose names I have made a custom to speak on the day of their remembrance. Too many children throughout history have been like the Holy Innocents, ‘known unto God’.
During recent weeks some friends and I have marked the approaching Christmas season with a weekly Zoom book club, considering the poems of Christian Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, guided by Canon Rachel Mann’s excellent book In the Bleak Midwinter, which specifically approaches Rossetti’s work through the season from Advent Sunday to Candlemas.
There is a reality and a paradox within the two biblical verses referencing the event. Although Matthew’s account is the only known reference to such an event, it is certainly congruent with how we know tyrants behave, especially when they believe their power is under threat. Plainly, reports of the arrival of the long expected Messiah would have disturbed Herod, a client king of the Roman Empire.
Less obvious is the inversion of roles we see in these verses. In the overall scheme of the salvation story, Jesus is sacrificed for humankind; the Christ is the sacrificial lamb. Yet, as Canon Mann points out, in this passage we have the innocent babes sacrificed while the Christ-child lives. She makes this point in the context of the problems faced by a sensitive poet grappling with the truths of the story and how to express them through serious contemplation.
Few poets will happily intrude the term ‘collateral damage’ into their verse, but that is effectively what we are contemplating here. In Rossetti’s work she captures the poignancy of the tragedy: “They scarcely waked before they slept, they scarcely wept before they laughed.” Rossetti had a Victorian familiarity with the sleep of death and brought an Anglo-Catholic faith to her verse, with faithful confidence that these Holy Innocents would find joy in heaven swiftly after their awful deaths. It is one way to mark the day with a modicum of optimism.
Although there are still horrible examples of child murder at home and abroad, today we do not ordinarily expect to contemplate such horrors at home, yet both need and injustice persist and come in many forms across the world.
Abroad, Boko Haram abduct children in Nigeria, and China ethnically cleanses its Uyghur population. In Chicago, infants become collateral damage in neighbourhood drugs wars. Innocents still suffer.
At home, we still have child abuse, grooming gangs, and human trafficking of the young. Less malevolently, but nevertheless discomforting, the recent Marcus Rashford campaign to take care of poorer children during school holidays, when free dinners are not available, evoked a widespread sympathetic public response. Parents who never expected to need such support were laid off from work for the overall public good. When challenged, the public responded.
Although that response was not directly religiously motivated, it was nevertheless congruent with what we know of Jesus. Whether excusing his hungry disciples for breaking religious custom by taking grain from the fields, or responding to the needs of thousands of curious listeners who had come to see if the rumours about him were true, Jesus’s impulse was the same. Raising a child from the dead he quietly urged them to give her something to eat. Need had to be met; Jesus met it, and set the benchmark for his followers.
The Christian response to need is not about merit, anymore than misfortune and victimhood are necessarily about guilt. We know the innocent suffer – the story of the Holy Innocents reminds us of that – but our compassion needs to go beyond this.
The generosity of the Incarnation is promiscuously indiscriminate and open to all, from the woman taken in adultery to the thief on the cross. Nobody understood this, viscerally, better than St Paul. Scripture did not help him, doctrine did not help him. Reason does not help us any more than it helped the victim of the robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
‘Go and do thou likewise‘, Jesus taught, and in that vein the Church has undertaken many initiatives throughout the year, offering service, comfort and hope to deserving and undeserving alike. The food-bank parcels go to all and sundry, believers and non believers; prayers at our altars are for the just and unjust alike. When we open our church doors literally or figuratively online, the Word is remade in the present day and all may partake.
One current expression of this approach local to my Diocese is on behalf not of holy innocents, but of those in youth custody. Some may indeed be innocent but plainly many are not. Being in custody, many are out of sight and out of mind, out of mind of society and often their families, but none is out of sight and out of mind of God. Not a sparrow falls…
There is a scandal at the Rainsbrook Youth Custody Centre in Rugby which has consistently fallen below the proper standards required by Government, since 2015. There have been reviews and inspections and yet still the inmates, some as young as 12, have been continuously failed, which is bad enough, but with the arrival of the Covid pandemic, things have deteriorated acutely.
The lockdowns imposed upon us all have offered some small experience of the deprivation of liberty, but few of us are in solitary confinement for 23½ hours a day. For anyone this would be a hard thing to endure, but these youngsters, whatever their misdoings, are also highly likely to be among the most neglected of children in the country. Many will have been let down by their parents, by wider families, by schools, friends, and statutory authorities alike, and now, in the face of a pandemic, they remain in a substandard oubliette, out of sight and out of mind.
It is bad enough that you and I knew and paid no attention to the story, but for those charged with the lawful care of these young people it is especially shameful. They are neglecting the charge that we gave them, and should be held to account.
Happily, mindful of their mission, there are those in the Church stepping forward to seek justice and humane treatment on behalf of these young people. In partnership with the children’s charity Article 39, a Kentish Vicar, the Rev’d Nathan Ward, has instructed solicitors to commence High Court proceedings on behalf of these incarcerated youngsters. He explains in a press release:
We cannot stand by and watch children being mistreated this way. The Ministry of Justice has systematically failed for months, and the Secretary of State must take urgent remedial action. St Margaret’s Church has instructed solicitors at Irwin Mitchell LLP to write to the Ministry of Justice over the failures at Rainsbrook secure training centre near Rugby which is contracted to detain children as young as 12 years old.
…The unprecedented move follows the publication of a letter dated 16 December 2020 from Ofsted’s Chief Inspector to the Secretary of State for Justice. The letter sets out the serious concerns of the three inspectorates scrutinising child prisons – Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorates of Prisons. After visiting Rainsbrook earlier this month, inspectors said “significant concerns remain about practices at the STC and the care and safety of children”. They issued an urgent notification to the Secretary of State, a process requiring the Minister to respond with an action plan within 28 days.
Carolyne Willow, Director of Article 39, said:
“The law requires that the director of Rainsbrook secure training centre carries out their duties with the welfare of children uppermost. Locking vulnerable children in a tiny room for 231⁄2 hours a day for a two-week period plainly flouts this fundamental protection. The Ministry of Justice funds MTCNovo to detain children, and must be held responsible for allowing this abusive treatment. In July, Ministers overnight changed the legal rules governing these centres without any consultation with the Children’s Commissioner or others concerned with the rights and interests of vulnerable children. We commend St Margaret’s Church for taking this action, and will support them as much as we can.”
The initiative is not on behalf of Holy Innocents; nor is it designed to boost numbers in the pews or add to the collection plate, yet it seems to lie within a long tradition of Christian social action which witnesses to the transforming power of the gospel bringing good news to the forgotten. So we begin the new Church year with an example and a challenge. What shall the rest of us choose to do to follow Christ more closely in the year ahead?