“Because in Him the Flesh is united to the Word without magical transformation. Imagination is redeemed from promiscuous fornication with her own images.”
—W.H. Auden, from “The Meditation of Simeon,” in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Imagination stands as one of the most powerful gifts that God has given human beings. With it, we can envision a better life, new forms of government and economy. We can empathize with one another, hearing and imagining another’s pain. We can dream of the fullness of our vocations. We can read and write fiction that teaches, inspires, and delights. We play!
But, at this time of year in particular, we live in a fantasy about Jesus. We think of his birth as a uniquely holy and peaceful scene, quarantined out of time. The women are silent, no babies cry, and the poverty and meekness of shepherds seems ordained. Our carols sometimes encourage this fantasy. So piously do we sing about ‘mangers’ that I was a teenager before I realized that ‘manger’ really just meant ‘feeding trough.’ To be clear, the Jesus birth took place in a world that we would recognize, not a fantasy. It is a world with empire, an unwed pregnant mother and cuckolded man, poverty, and now, on Holy Innocents, murder.
Nothing reminds us more of the darkness of our world than the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which we remember today. The story comes from Matthew’s gospel, and it echoes the infanticide of the Egyptians on the Jewish people in Exodus. In Jesus’s day, King Herod, representing the local collaborating government, orders the murder of children in order to protect his own perceived power. Jesus and family (and likely many more refugees) are forced in a reverse exodus to flee to Egypt. Jesus is born into the real world with its murder, its refugees, its unpunished oppressors.
Holy Innocents arrives every Christmas to remind us to step outside of our fantasies. Real innocents die, and we owe them more than to create a fictional, self-soothing pacifier-Jesus. Our imagination is for better things than this. It’s for better things than conspiracy theories. It’s for better things than perpetuating the same old tyrannies, economic inequalities, callous environmental degradation.
We need Holy Innocents. It, too, can be fantasized away into a bloodless storybook anecdote—such is our power, it turns out—but it offers an amazing moment to stop forcing Christmas into irrelevance. It challenges us to imagine better by paying attention to the reality we inhabit. It wakes us up to the hard things just outside the light of the city-sponsored creche, and Holy Innocents teaches us to look not only at what’s pretty, not only what is cleanly lit, but to imagine the whole. We need to imagine, envision, empathize, and dream all of the implications of Jesus’s presence among us—what it says about our compassion, our justice, our joy, our sorrow, our society, our planet, our money. Holy Innocents reminds us of all the people our fantasies would prefer to leave out.
The wisdom of the church is that Christmas includes many days—joyful days, but also tragic ones. Today is the day that the church calls us to imagine with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole desire, and not leave anyone, no matter how small, out.
[Image credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]