According to Matthew’s Gospel, the birth of Jesus, the “king of the Jews,” so threatened the tyrannical King Herod that he ordered the slaughter of all infant, male children in Bethlehem. Now, I am under no delusion that Herod was a secret believer in Jesus Christ or that he actually believed that the infant Jesus was an actual, political king-in-waiting with any legitimate claim to his throne. I am convinced, however, that the uneasy pacification of Judea could only be maintained so long as no embers of hope were allowed to burn.
But embers of hope burn despite the best attempts of tyranny and oppression to snuff them out.
While it is true that the Massacre of the Holy Innocents – as the occasion is known in most Christian circles – commemorates the state-sanctioned deaths of the infant, male children targeted by Herod in the hopes that the infant Jesus would be among them, human history records no shortage of attempts by oppressive power to destroy hope. But, in the words of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, “though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.”William Hunt’s “The Triumph of the Innocents” showcases the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt while being escorted by the souls of the Holy Innocents. They are adorned with flowers, symbols of fragility, beauty, and new birth. The infant Jesus holds a handful of wheat, seemingly to connect their martyrdom to John 12:24’s defiant declaration, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
It seems trite, but perhaps worth remembering in a time that seems to glorify bullying at every level of our lives, but I remember my mother telling me whenever I had endured a particularly rough day at school that “bullies never win.” It is true that bullies do sometimes do irrevocable damage to their victims. It is true that some victims of bullying take their own lives as a result. Wherever we witness power’s ability to abuse, we must step in to shield the powerless. Our courage to intervene comes from our faith in the utter weakness of abusive power. It is loud because it is not right. It is clumsy because it is not stable. It lashes out because it has no inner peace. Jesus shows us a better, higher way – love.
“The Triumph of the Innocents” reframes the story. Ultimately, Herod lost. Not only did he not succeed in killing in the infant Jesus, he didn’t succeed in snuffing out the fragile embers of hope.
It is true that hope floats.
It also burns.
A Prayer for Today
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
How do you practice hope in difficult times?