Holy Innocents

By George Clifford

A decade ago when I lived in England, periodic confrontations between competing groups of contemporary Druids at Stonehenge surprised and then amused me. These modern adherents of the ancient Druid cult would converge on Stonehenge, especially at the summer and winter solstices. There they performed rituals that they believed their spiritual forebears had first performed around the ancient stone plinths.

The confusion that birthed intra-Druidic conflict arose because the early Druids left no written records of their liturgies and rituals. Present day Druid groups each claim that secret oral traditions purportedly passed down through the interceding millennia allow their sect to follow the ancient customs and traditions correctly. At times, verbal confrontations between competing groups of Druids actually became physical altercations, ending only when police imposed a truce on the warring groups. Christians are obviously not the only ones who find agreeing on liturgy and theology impossible.

The emergence of Christian (including Episcopalian) “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” has at least two possible meanings. First, these additional Christmas services constitute a helpful pastoral response to people for whom Christmas connotes anything but joy and good will.

Second, the “Longest Night” services perhaps return Christmas to its original date, the winter solstice (Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 85-112). Although the evidence yields no definitive answers, the date of Christmas may have coincided with the solstice based on dating Jesus’ birth by working backwards from the calculated date of his resurrection. Or, Christmas may have turned a pagan feast into a Christian celebration. In either case, Christians over time comfortably identified the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) with their commemoration of Jesus’ birth on the solstice. Discrepancies between the Julian calendar and solar year coupled with the subsequent shift from the Julian to Gregorian calendars explain why we now celebrate Christmas four days after the solstice.

Some fundamentalist Christians cite Christmas’ alleged pagan origins as justification for not celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. That’s not an issue that interests me. Jesus was born. I like to party. Parties are more fun when people party together. December 25 seems like a fine day to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Of course, if everyone agreed to move the party to December 21, or another day, I’d have no problems with that. If God can change people, God working through the Church can certainly transform pagan festivities and customs into Christian festivities and customs. Unlike the Druids, we Christians should be known by our love for one another, rather than allowing the trivial to divide us.

Concomitantly, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 receives too little attention. Biblical scholars question the historicity of the visit of the wise men and of the slaughter of all Bethlehem boy toddlers and infants under the age of two (Matthew 2:1-12). No historical evidence exists for either. Instead, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth seems constructed to parallel that of Moses’ birth. Both Moses and Jesus are born when all male Jewish children must die; both live in Egypt; both will deliver their people.

Even as God can transform pagan events, so can God transform probable fiction into myth through which the light of God’s love infuses the world. Any historical basis for the wise men visiting or the slaughtering of male children in Bethlehem seems relatively unimportant for twenty-first century Christianity. Children are precious and vulnerable. Too many children are hungry, sick, homeless, abused, and unloved. Children die every day whose lives we could save for just pennies. The powers of this world have become Pharaoh/Herod, tacitly permitting if not indirectly ordering death by myopically focusing on their own interests rather than the well-being of the least among us.

Christmas is not about shopping, presents, or gala festivities. Christmas commemorates the birth of a precious, vulnerable child, a gift of love wrapped in swaddling clothes. To my amazement and profound appreciation, my parishioners have given animals through Episcopal Development and Relief in my honor, gifts of life itself to some of the most vulnerable. In their gifts, my parishioners re-enact Christmas’ real meaning. Their gifts mean more than any other gift could mean.

Thinking back over twenty centuries of Christian history, the majority of ecclesiastical and theological disputes that loomed so large in their own day now appear to be little more than chaff. Structure and organization are important; effectiveness and efficiency are vital attributes of good stewards and faithful servants. Language is important. Words create reality and can give life or bring death. Nevertheless, the heart of Christianity is our love for God and others expressed through the Jesus experience.

Modern Druids fight over who has the truth. I, and many in Great Britain, find ourselves amused. When we Christians fight, I wonder how many non-Christians laugh. Although we, unlike the Druids, have a written record (Scripture), few Christians and even fewer Anglicans contend that the written record is inerrant history. We openly acknowledge supplementing the written record with unfounded tradition, such as most western Christians celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. For the outsider observing Christianity, our fights quite likely seem as petty and childish as do the Druid disputes.

In the meantime, children are hungry, sick, homeless, abused, and unloved. The Feast of the Holy Innocents invites us to enter more fully into Christmas’ meaning, setting aside disagreements in praxis and theology to fully engage in helping all children to know truly that they are precious, secure in God’s love manifest in us.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Past Posts