This week a few of us travelled to the Catholic Worker Farm near Watford for their annual retreat marking the feast of the Holy Innocents (28th December).
Very quickly after the joy of Christmas the Church gives us a much more sombre feast day, perhaps a reminder that the journey to salvation will not move smoothly from Christmas to Easter. The Holy Innocents are those babies killed by Herod’s soldiers (Mt 2:16-18), they are the collateral damage of Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus.
These babies of Bethlehem are just a few of the many millions of innocent children killed and maimed by war throughout the ages. Matthew’s Gospel looks beyond this single event, giving us echoes of earlier suffering, evoking the killing of Hebrew boys in Egypt (Ex 1:22), and the Babylonian transit camp at Ramah the first stopping point towards exile (Jer 31:15). Matthew’s gospel was likely written for an audience of refugees recently fled from the bloody Jewish/Roman War (66-70CE), his first reader no doubt felt the acute pain of lost children.
In the centuries since there have been countless children killed in war, thousands still die in airstrikes, bombing, and ground fighting across Africa, the Middle East, central Asia and elsewhere. We think particularly of Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, DRC, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia, the list could go on….
The two day retreat ended with a vigil outside Northwood HQ, the HQ for the British military. We sought to acknowledge the complicity of our nation in perpetuating the killing of the innocent, in active combat in the air and on the ground, as a trader and supplier of weapons to others, and through the pursuit of destructive economic policies. We spent time in prayer, we tied crosses to the outer fence, and read out the names of just a few of those killed in recent conflicts.
Our aim was to be witnesses to a different way, to say no to our modern-day Herod’s. To remember and lament the continued killing of holy innocents.