Monday, December 17, 2012

Herod, the Holy Innocents and Suffering Bravely

“To act bravely is the part of a Roman; to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian.”

-An early Christian saying

The Church and the State are like two brothers who come from the same Father. Both happen to be creations of God. And when they work together for the common good, society prospers. St. Ivo, bishop of Chartres, confirmed this to Pope Paschal II in a letter:

"When kingdom and priesthood are at one, in complete accord, the world is well ruled, and the Church flourishes, and brings forth abundant fruit. But when they are at variance, not only smaller interests prosper not, but even things of greatest moment fall into deplorable decay."

But like Cain, who, out of jealousy, killed his brother Abel, the State over the centuries has sought to repress the Church. Just as God favored Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, the same God favors his own kingdom above any political empire that be. After all, Christ founded a Church, not a government or political party. To be sure, the mission of the Church and the duties of the State are to be respected in their own right. Nevertheless, the Gospel makes it clear that God's kingdom does not belong to this world.

Still, political rulers like King Herod have taken great offense to the superiority of God’s kingdom. As St. John Chrysostom said, “Unquenchable is the anger which jealousy of the rival of a crown enkindles. Like a wounded wild beast, it tears in pieces whatever meets the eye, as if the cause of his wounds.” In fact, the aggressive actions taken by Herod against the newborn Messiah traced out the increasing opposition and tension between the church and the world that would unfold for centuries to come. From the beginning of Jesus' life on earth, the first one to seek his destruction was an ambitious political ruler.

Yet, what is curious is that God could have killed King Herod if he wanted to. After all, in the book of Acts, Ananias and his wife Sapphira were struck down by the Lord.  This was because they had lied to the Apostles about their possessions. Now, if the Lord would have done the same thing with Herod- who was certainly guilty of a greater sin -the Holy Family would have been spared at least 2 to 7 years of exile in Egypt. Furthermore, the mothers of the slain babies in Bethlehem would have been spared their great sorrow and grief.

Again, the important thing to note is that God "could have" prevented Herod’s evil design of mass infanticide. He could have spared much heartache the Holy Family encountered by taking refuge in a foreign land. He could have spared the heart wrenching experience of parents witnessing the slaughter of their infants and toddlers.

Yet, the Lord who is all good and all powerful permitted this evil. As siuch, the people of Bethlehem had to come to terms with two seemingly contrary attributes of God: His goodness and his power. If the God of Hosts is all good and all powerful then how can he allow this terrible tragedy to happen? This is something every believer must come to terms with when a loved one dies...especially at such a young age.

It is sometimes asked, “Why couldn’t God save my beloved from death? He could have done so, why didn’t he?”  This is where the mystery of the Cross enters into the picture. This is where the faith of every follower of Christ is put to the ultimate test. But ultimately, this test and trial by fire is the very instrument God uses in saving souls.

Pope St. Leo the Great said that through the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents “it was prophetically declared that the Church of God should increase by the cruel fury of her persecutors; since by the punishments and deaths of the blessed martyrs, whilst Christians were supposed to be diminished in numbers, they were augmented by example.” This same pontiff went on to quote an earlier Church Father, Tertullian: “And the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

In short, therer are different types of martyrs. Sixteenth century priest and scholar, Cornelius Lapide, wrote the following: “Hence Doctors teach that there are three classes of martyrs. To the first belong those who, in deed as well as will, are martyrs. Such are adults who voluntarily accept death from a tyrant for the sake of Christ. The second class are those who are martyrs only in deed; such as infants who are slain for Christ. The third are those who are martyrs only in will—who desire martyrdom as St. Francis desired it.”

To paraphrase an early Christian saying: To act bravely is the part of a soldier; to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian. It is also part of the Christian to know that an all-powerful God could prevent evil from happening but chooses not to for a purpose of saving; especially when such evil descends upon his Church. And when that evil happens to be perpetrated by the powerful of this world, especially political rulers, we should be confident that the persecuted Church, like her founder, will prevail.