Flores martyrum

A Jewish friend — sincere and observant and at the time trending from “conservative” to “orthodox” — once described to me the condition of Jewry. His people were “chosen,” as everyone knows. But what they don’t know is how stressful that is.

“Were G-d to say, ‘You are now unchosen’, we would all walk.”

This was, I believe, an attempt at humour. (“Where would the Jews be without it?” he also said.) Later, I learnt it is an old joke. And grasped: that the humour is not blasphemous, but self-deprecating.

Nevertheless it is dicey, for the audience may not appreciate an article of faith. It is that God has the Majesty. Wisdom lies in obedience. And deeper it lies in the contemplation of God’s ways, which at the surface may seem to make no sense at all; to be arbitrary, tyrannical. As instead are the ways of men, when men resolve to play God, forgetting that they lack His omniscience.

As Herod who, in the “infancy narratives,” resolves to secure his kingship by the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. (See also, here.) For this is what worldly power does, when it feels threatened.

The event is not mentioned in Josephus, but was typical of the many Herodine atrocities that the “secular” historians did record. By the biblical scholars, the numbers are contested — not the thousands upon thousands of murdered babies in lurid Syriac, then mediaeval accounts. For as the scholars like to say, dryly, “Bethlehem was a small town.” There couldn’t have been more than a few dozen children under the age of two, in all of its environs. But, “Not that many killed,” makes a poor news headline.

Put it rather in the words of Jeremiah: “A voice in Ramah was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”

As to large numbers, I’m often given to reflect on the ten-millions of “holy innocents” that we have slaughtered, under the rule not of Herod but of liberal and progressive thinking — something vastly more evil than Herod in its effects and pretensions.

Why did God allow Herod’s slaughter to happen? This is a question often asked by the glib, who would like to transfer Herod’s guilt to the Almighty, by way of excusing themselves from belief. Among the questions that answer that question is, “Why did God allow you to have an abortion?”

But of course He did not. The plural “you” in this reformulation put her and himself in God’s place, and that is what followed. It is what invariably follows when the human is substituted for the divine will: an atrocity. The choice is life or death, and therefore Isaiah: “Choose life.”

The Feast of the Holy Innocents can be found in the Leonine Sacramentary of the fifth century, along with the first formal ordering of Gregorian chant within the Church Calendar (a proof that all were flourishing long before). To my mind, it was brilliantly placed on this fourth day of Christmas, to invoke the martyrs “after Stephen,” who came in fact before Stephen: “the martyrs before the martyrs,” as it were — the (innumerable) martyrs for Christ in the Old dispensation. I mean, those who died for Christ, and may continue to die for Christ, all unknowing. This Old dispensation is taken up in the New: for yes they, too, are surely our martyrs.

It is a sequence of Sacrifice that extends out of time, woven of the supernatural threads that bound the first woman and the first man.

Christ came to break this demonic cord, that pulls us down; to rescue us. He “chose” to rescue us. In that sense we, the wicked Gentiles, were “chosen” as the wicked Jews had been chosen. To “walk” is not to escape this “tyranny”; it is instead to choose drowning rather than be saved.