Feast of the Holy Innocents
1 John 1:5-2:2
The Child in Egypt
The name Egypt occurs three times in today’s gospel. “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” (Mt 2:13). “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt” (Mt 2:14). And finally, Saint Matthew cites the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Mt 2:15; Hos 11:1). As with so many proper names of persons and places in Sacred Scripture, Egypt enfolds and discloses a deeper mystery.
Egypt is a name and a place charged with ambivalence. On the one hand, it is the land of abundance, a refuge in time of famine (Gen 12:10; 42:1-3), a safe place for the political refugee (1 K 11:40; Jr 26:21). On the other hand, Egypt symbolizes the servitude and genocide out of which the Lord delivered his people. Hear the words of the Lord, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:7-8).
The descent of the Infant Christ into Egypt and his return is a fundamental points of correspondence between the Old Testament and the New. The Infant Christ is the new Joseph in Egypt. In Christ, the words spoken concerning Joseph are fulfilled: “The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had, in house and field” (Gen 39:5). Like the innocent Joseph, the innocent Christ is a guest in Egypt, receiving Egyptian hospitality, finding in Egypt a place of safety, a refuge from the murderous threats born of jealousy.
The Blood of Jesus
Christ is the new Moses and Christ is the Paschal Lamb in Egypt slain. His blood marks the souls of the faithful as once the blood of the immolated lamb marked the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the Jews in Egypt (cf. Ex 12:7). This is the very blood of which Saint John speaks in today’s first reading, saying, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).
Behold, I am With You
Christ is the true and definitive Israel, “the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18) called out of Egypt into the desert wilderness, there to face the struggles and temptations of the Evil One in fasting and in prayer. Christ, having come out of Egypt, having vanquished the temptations of Satan in the desert, emerges victorious into the land of the living. This is the spiritual geography of the whole Christian life: out of Egypt, through the desert, into the promised land. Herein lies the whole of baptismal, eucharistic, and monastic spirituality.
Egypt always evokes the dramas of exile and of flight. Jacob twice knew exile. The first exile was due to the hatred of his brother Esau; Jacob fled eastward to Haran and there, in a mysterious dream, he heard the word of the Lord, saying to him, “Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen 28:15). Then again, as a very old man, Jacob, again in a dream, heard the familiar voice saying to him, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation; I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again” (Gen 46:3). The going down to Egypt and the coming up from Egypt are intrinsic to the plan of God not only in the Bible, but in your life and mine.
Where Salvation Begins
Israel’s sojourn in Egypt — all 430 years of it — is essential to the unfolding of God’s plan. Joseph says to his brothers, “I am your brother Joseph . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God. . . . God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not tarry” (Gen 45:8-9). We are, at times, tempted to think of the Egypt years of our own lives as somehow expendable and unimportant: an embarrassment to be forgotten and consigned to the memory’s darkest and deepest archives. Such thinking is flawed. Salvation begins precisely in Egypt. Israel went down to Egypt; the Infant Christ went down to Egypt; every Christian and, in a dramatic way, every monastic goes down to Egypt to await there, groaning in bondage (Ex 2:23) the hour of deliverance.
Where We Learn to Pray
Egypt is where we learn to pray, not with pious phrasing and elegantly fashioned sentiments, but with groans, and cries, and tears. “And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning . . .” (Ex 2:23). How closely this corresponds to the prayer of Christ himself, described in the Letter to the Hebrews. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb 5:7). This is the reality echoed by Saint Paul: “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).
A Paschal Mystery
Given all of this, what is the meaning of the exile of the Infant Christ in Egypt? The new–born Christ is, by divine design, carried in his mother’s arms to the point of departure of salvation history. The Infant Christ goes down to Egypt to signify that his saving work will be, for all who believe in him, a flight from Egypt, a passover in the night, an exodus by far more glorious than the first. The flight into Egypt of the Innocent Christ, and his return is a paschal mystery; it is already a foreshadowing of cross, tomb, and resurrection.
The Passion of the Infant Christ
I can never celebrate this feast of the Holy Innocents without returning to a book written many years ago by Caryll Houselander: The Passion of the Infant Christ. Writing in London during the Second World War — literally “under the bombs” — she was inspired to speak of the Passion of the Infant Christ. Seeing the sufferings of her own life and of those she loved with the pure vision of one become a child in Christ, she recognized in both cradle and cross wood hewn from the same tree.
The Cradle of Christ
“The way to begin the healing of the wounds of the world,” she wrote, “is to treasure the Infant Christ in us; to be not the castle but the cradle of Christ, and in rocking that cradle to the rhythm of love, to swing the whole world back into the beat of the Music of Eternal Life. It is true that the span of an Infant’s arms is absurdly short; but if they are the arms of the Divine Child, they are as wide as the reach of the arms on the cross; they embrace and support the whole world; their shadow is the noonday shade for its suffering people; they are the spread wings under which the whole world shall find shelter and rest” (Caryll Houselander, The Passion of the Infant Christ).
The Wood of Cradle and of Cross
Houselander understood that nothing of the paschal mystery of Christ is locked in an irretrievable past. The liturgy is the passion of the Infant Christ made present to us and for us, here and now, in all its fullness. Are you in Egypt, “groaning under bondage” (Ex 2:23), learning to pray in suffering? Are you wandering in a desert waste, tortured by hunger and thirst, a prey to temptations and terrors of the night? Have you crossed over into that good and broad land where milk and honey flow? Through the Eucharist the Infant Christ is with you, his prayer in yours, and yours in his: a prayer that says “Yes” to the wood of the cradle, to the wood of the Cross, and to everything that lies in between.
The Divine Infancy
Caryll Houselander, a woman of our own times, a woman “acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3) can, I think, help us understand something of the mystery of the Innocent Christ, something of the mystery of suffering innocence in each of us. “The Divine Infancy in us,” she wrote, “is the logical answer to the peculiar sufferings of our age and the only solution to its problems. If the Infant Christ is fostered in us, no life is trivial. No life is impotent before suffering, no suffering is too trifling to heal the world, too little to redeem, to be the point at which the world’s healing begins.”