Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Sacrament of Suffering

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, or the Holy Children, as it is called in the East, sounds strange to modern ears, not least of all because it is hard to see the slaughter of newborn babies as redemptive in any way at all.

However, there is a depth in Matthew’s account of Herod’s massacre which takes the reader beyond the immediate circumstances of the story. Death pervades the entire birth account, from the moment when the wise men lay myrrh at the feet of the Babe. Myrrh’s primary use was as a precious embalming agent. Death stalks the holy scene.

How like our own lives whenever we find there is bitter cause for weeping in the midst of a joyful season, when death interferes with our joy of life,... when we look for a wooden manger cuddling a beautiful babe but instead a cross beckons, calling us to come and die to self.

This week of vacation has been like that for me. Seeing my elderly father's health failing, corralling two teenage sons while trying to make sure they have fun, seeing myself through my parent's eyes as we all age.

My own experience of provisionality and suffering, however small, has confirmed for me that suffering, rightly understood and offered to God, can be a sacrament. It can only be so, however, when it is purged of self pity and directed toward the salvation of the other. Suffering becomes truly redemptive when, like our Lord’s own death, it serves a greater good, a good not of our own making or for our own aggrandizement.

In that spirit I can agree with these words of Cardinal Newman, which still sound jarringly in modern ears. But, perhaps under the Cross they are not so very far from the truth:

Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), priest, founder of a religious community, theologian

from Sermon 6: “The Mind of Little Children”; PPS II, 6

«Martyrs incapable of confessing the name of your Son, and yet glorified by his birth» (Post communion prayer)

"It is surely right to celebrate the death of the Holy Innocents: for it was a blessed one. To be brought near to Christ, and to suffer for Christ, is surely an unspeakable privilege; to suffer anyhow, even unconsciously. The little children whom He took up in his arms, were not conscious of His loving condescension; but was it no privilege when He blessed them?

Surely this massacre had in it the nature of a Sacrament; it was a pledge of the love of the Son of God towards those who were included in it. All who came near Him, more or less suffered by approaching Him, just as if earthly pain and trouble went out of Him, as some precious virtue for the good of their souls; —and these infants in the number.

Surely His very presence was a Sacrament; every motion, look, and word of His conveying grace to those who would receive it: and much more was fellowship with Him. And hence in ancient times such barbarous murders or Martyrdoms were considered as a kind of baptism, a baptism of blood, with a sacramental charm in it, which stood in the place of the appointed Laver of regeneration. Let us then take these little children as in some sense Martyrs, and see what instruction we may gain from the pattern of their innocence."

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